Neuropeptides and social behaviour: effects of oxytocin and vasopressin in humans

Prog Brain Res. 2008;170:337-50. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(08)00428-7.


The fundamental ability to form attachment is indispensable for human social relationships. Impairments in social behaviour are associated with decreased quality of life and psychopathological states. In non-human mammals, the neuropeptides oxytocin (OXT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) are key mediators of complex social behaviours, including attachment, social recognition and aggression. In particular, OXT reduces behavioural and neuroendocrine responses to social stress and seems both to enable animals to overcome their natural avoidance of proximity and to inhibit defensive behaviour, thereby facilitating approach behaviour. AVP has primarily been implicated in male-typical social behaviours, including aggression and pair-bond formation, and mediates anxiogenic effects. Initial studies in humans suggest behavioural, neural, and endocrine effects of both neuropeptides, similar to those found in animal studies. This review focuses on advances made to date in the effort to understand the role of OXT and AVP in human social behaviour. First, the literature on OXT and AVP and their involvement in social stress and anxiety, social cognition, social approach, and aggression is reviewed. Second, we discuss clinical implications for mental disorders that are associated with social deficits (e.g. autism spectrum disorder, borderline personality disorder). Finally, a model of the interactions of anxiety and stress, social approach behaviour, and the oxytocinergic system is presented, which integrates the novel approach of a psychobiological therapy in psychopathological states.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression
  • Animals
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / physiopathology
  • Borderline Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Models, Animal
  • Neuropeptides / physiology
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Vasopressins / physiology*


  • Neuropeptides
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin