‘Trust Hormone’ Reverses Age-Related Damage in Mice, CIRM-Funded Study Finds

It’s released by a warm hug, it makes your heart melt, it can even boost your libido. And now scientists have discovered that oxytocin, the so-called ‘trust hormone,’ can also save the body’s cells from the harmful effects of aging.

 The healthy muscle tissue on the left is from a young mouse. The addition of oxytocin to the blood of old mice rapidly rejuvenates the old muscle, as shown on the right. (Credit: Wendy Cousin and Christian Elabd, UC Berkeley)

The healthy muscle tissue on the left is from a young mouse. The addition of oxytocin to the blood of old mice rapidly rejuvenates the old muscle, as shown on the right. (Credit: Wendy Cousin and Christian Elabd, UC Berkeley)

As reported today in the journal Nature Communications, University of California, Berkeley scientists have discovered in animal models that the hormone oxytocin can actually help to revitalize old or damaged muscle cells—making them act like new.

This research, which was led by Dr. Irina Conboy and supported by a CIRM New Faculty Award, had focused on finding molecules that spur stem cells to regenerate aging tissues—a prospect that had so far eluded scientists. As Conboy explained in today’s news release:

“Unfortunately, most of the molecules discovered so far to boost tissue regeneration are also associated with cancer. Our quest [was] to find a molecule that not only rejuvenates old muscle and other tissue, but that can do so sustainably long-term without increasing the risk for cancer.”

In this study, the team revealed that oxytocin could very well be that molecule. A hormone that is normally secreted by the brain’s pituitary gland and released throughout the body, oxytocin is often referred to as the ‘trust hormone’ because of its association with romance and friendship. Previous research by the study’s co-lead author Dr. Christian Elabd had revealed that oxytocin prevented osteoporosis in mice. In this study, the researchers dug deeper at precisely how raising or lowering oxytocin levels affected aging tissue.

So the team injected the hormone in old mice that also had damaged muscle tissue. After just nine days, the mice that had received the oxytocin injections showed remarkable healing—at about 80% compared to young, healthy mice.

And as for the risk of cancer? Importantly, the oxytocin did not appear to cause cells to divide uncontrollably—thus negating a key concern that the oxytocin could lead to tumor formation.

The potential health benefits for oxytocin is boosted by the fact that Pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, is already FDA approved to help with labor and control bleeding after childbirth. The research team is hopeful that Pitocin could one day become approved to also combat aging and age-related diseases.

Recently, scientists have found that one of the greatest risk factors for many chronic diseases—including Parkiinson’s, Alzheimer’s and various types of cancer—is aging. But oxytocin has the potential to target not simply a specific disease, but rather the underlying aging process. As Conboy elaborated:

“If you target processes associated with aging, you may be tackling those diseases at the same time. Aging is a natural process, but I believe that we can meaningfully intervene with age-imposed organ degeneration, thereby slowing down the rate at which we become progressively unhealthy.”

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