New Study Explains Bio-Chemical Bond Between Humans and Canines

A recent study in Science led by Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Japan is reviewed by Alan Manevitz, MD

What’s the most significant/striking finding here? Were you surprised to find that this feedback loop with oxytocin exists with dogs and humans? Why or why not?

Gaze between humans has always been demonstrated to have importance in communication (though we know that blind people can also develop trustworthy and excellent communication without gaze).  Oxytocin is released in the maternal-baby relationship during gazing.  While oxytocin has been associated with contributing to social bonding, it is not surprising that the same may exist with ‘man’s best friend’ i.e. dogs. The finding of positive oxytocin biological loops mediated by dyadic interactive interactions supports this. The area of the brain is currently thought to be in the anterior cingulated cortex, a region strongly acted upon by oxytocin systems. This biological mechanism may have led to the domestication of dogs earlier in history.

Can you give a little background on what oxytocin is and what we know about its role in humans and human bonding/emotions?

Oxytocin is a hormone made in the hypothalamus that participates significantly in various behaviors including social recognition, orgasm, bonding, anxiety, maternal behaviors and it is physically importantly involved in childbirth (labor, birth {in terms of uterine contraction}, maternal bonding and lactation {letdown reflex in establishing breast milk}) and potentially in wound healing by modulating inflammation

What is the significance of this finding as it relates to people’s psychological health, especially that of pet owners?

The release of oxytocin in a positive social relationship with either a human or an animal promotes the potential for better health and more positive bonding.  This may be a part of the biological mechanisms that support the use of therapy dogs seen to help individuals clinically to feel less anxious and more at peace

Anything else?

Oxytocin has gotten a reputation as a ‘bonding’ hormone as it has been shown in some research to evoke feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, feelings of calmness and security when the company of a mate or partner.  There has been some research demonstrating that oxytocin can decrease anxiety and protect against stress when combined with social support.  This suggests oxytocin may be important for inhibition of brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear and anxiety. HOWEVER, further research suggests that oxytocin may assist the preexisting mindset of the individual and the bonding individual:socially secure individuals and their socially secure partners gain the positive outcome of furthering trust but anxious individuals may have a negative impact on trust and cooperation.  So, oxytocin may be part of our adaptive system that allows us to coordinate our behavior with our social situation acting against the background of our histories and emotions (in one study oxytocin promoted dishonesty in group dynamics—therefore, it can potentially be used to promote or hinder empathy depending upon the group dynamic).  While it is used clinically in childbirth safely and effectively, it is too early in our knowledge of research to use it clinically in our children and ourselves to ‘feel good’ or better about ourselves.