Scientists Discover “Love Hormone” Oxytocin Could Be Used to Treat Cognitive Disorders Like Alzheimer’s

Oxytocin, the hormone that induce feelings of love and well-being within us, are found to reverse some of the damage caused by amyloid plaques in the learning and memory center of the brain in an animal model of Alzheimer’s.
Credit: Tokyo University of Science

Scientists discover for the first time that oxytocin could be a potential new therapeutic option for cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder in which the nerve cells (neurons) in a person’s brain and the connections among them degenerate slowly, causing severe memory loss, intellectual deficiencies, and deterioration in motor skills and communication. One of the main causes of Alzheimer’s is the accumulation of a protein called amyloid β (Aβ) in clusters around neurons in the brain, which hampers their activity and triggers their degeneration. Studies in animal models have found that increasing the aggregation of Aβ in the hippocampus — the brain’s main learning and memory center — causes a decline in the signal transmission potential of the neurons therein. This degeneration affects a specific trait of the neurons, called “synaptic plasticity,” which is the ability of synapses (the site of signal exchange between neurons) to adapt to an increase or decrease in signaling activity over time. Synaptic plasticity is crucial to the development of learning and cognitive functions in the hippocampus. Thus, Aβ and its role in causing cognitive memory and deficits have been the focus of most research aimed at finding treatments for Alzheimer’s.

Now, advancing this research effort, a team of scientists from Japan, led by Professor Akiyoshi Saitoh from the Tokyo University of Science, has looked at oxytocin, a hormone conventionally known for its role in the female reproductive system and in inducing the feelings of love and well-being. “Oxytocin was recently found to be involved in regulating learning and memory performance, but so far, no previous study deals with the effect of oxytocin on Aβ-induced cognitive impairment,” Prof Saitoh says. Realizing this, Prof Saitoh’s group set out to connect the dots. Their findings are published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communication.

Prof Saitoh and team first perfused slices of the mouse hippocampus with Aβ to confirm that Aβ causes the signaling abilities of neurons in the slices to decline or — in other words — impairs their synaptic plasticity. Upon additional perfusion with oxytocin, however, the signaling abilities increased, suggesting that oxytocin can reverse the impairment of synaptic plasticity that Aβ causes.

To find out how oxytocin achieves this, they conducted a further series of experiments. In a normal brain, oxytocin acts by binding with special structures in the membranes of brain cells, called oxytocin receptors. The scientists artificially “blocked” these receptors in the mouse hippocampus slices to see if oxytocin could reverse Aβ-induced impairment of synaptic plasticity without binding to these receptors. Expectedly, when the receptors were blocked, oxytocin could not reverse the effect of Aβ, which shows that these receptors are essential for oxytocin to act.

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