The hormone known for creating soothing sensations during pleasant social and physical interactions might one day be used to maintain and repair aging muscles, according to a study conducted at the University of California at Berkeley.
Researchers say oxytocin, which is released during breastfeeding, sex, and even a warm hug, could become a viable treatment for age-related muscle wasting or sarcopenia.
Associated with social and romantic attachements, oxytocin increases libido and is thought to create social, familial and romantic bonds.
“This is the hormone that makes your heart melt when you see kittens, puppies and human babies,” said principal investigator Irina Conboy, associate professor of bioengineering and a member of the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3). “There is an ongoing joke among my research team that we’re all happy, friendly and trusting because oxytocin permeates the lab.”
In the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers observed oxytocin levels in mice and found them to decline with age.
Older mice were observed to have fewer oxytocin receptors in muscle stem cells.
Upon being injected with the hormone, the injured muscles of the older mice began to repair themselves after just nine days.
“The action of oxytocin was fast,” said Christian Elabd, a senior scientist in Conboy’s lab and study co-author. “The repair of muscle in the old mice was at about 80 percent of what we saw in the young mice.”
Of notable interest is that young mice that received oxytocin injections did not undergo muscular change, according to senior scientist and lead study co-author Wendy Cousin.
“This is good because it demonstrates that extra oxytocin boosts aged tissue stem cells without making muscle stem cells divide uncontrollably,” Cousin added.
Cousin envisions that oxytocin — already the key ingredient in the drug Picotin, administered to induce labor — will overtake traditional hormone replacement therapy as the go-to anti-aging treatment for women and men. Hormone replacement therapy is associated with numerous health risks and has proven ineffective in muscle regeneration.