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Newly-Discovered Cells May Explain Oxytocin and Female Arousal Link

Update Date: Oct 10, 2014 06:00 PM EDT
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Scientists have finally identified the mysterious process of how the "love hormone" piques female's sexual interest.

Previous studies revealed that oxytocin or the "cuddle hormone" helps couples fall in love, mothers bond with children and team cooperation.

Scientists discovered a new class of brain cells believed to be responsible for creating the spark between the sexes in certain situations.

"By identifying a new population of neurons activated by oxytocin, we have uncovered one way this chemical signal influences interactions between male and female mice," researcher Nathaniel Heintz, professor of molecular biology at Rockefeller University in New York City, said in a news release.

Heintz and his team looked at how a brain receptor responds to oxytocin in the brain's cortex.

"This raised the question: What is this small, scattered population of interneurons doing in response to this important signal, oxytocin?" said co-researcher Miho Nakajima, according to a statement."Because oxytocin is most involved in social behaviors of females, we decided to focus our experiments on females."

The study revealed that blocking these cells known as oxytocin receptor interneurons decreased female mice's interest in male mice. Scientists explain that experimental female mice were signficantly more interested in exploring inanimate object than potential mates when placed in a room containing a male mouse or a plastic Lego block. Researchers noted that normal female mice would be more interested in the male mice.

"In general, OxtrINs appear to sit silently when not exposed to oxytocin," co-researcher Andreas Görlich said. "The interesting part is that when exposed to oxytocin these neurons fire more frequently in female mice than they do in male mice, possibly reflecting the differences that showed up in the behavioral tests."

While scientists cannot pinpoint exactly how oxytocin triggers mice in estrus, or the sexually reproductive phase in the female cycle, researchers noted that these findings might also apply to humans.

"Oxytocin responses have been studied in many parts of the brain, and it is clear that it, or other hormones like it, can impact behavior in different ways, in different contexts and in response to different physiological cues," Heintz said. "In a general sense, this new research helps explain why social behavior depends on context as well as physiology."

The findings are published in the journal Cell.

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