Background: Substantial empirical evidence has demonstrated that individuals who are socially isolated or have few positive social connections seem to age at a faster rate and have more chronic diseases. Oxytocin is a neurohypophyseal hormone hypothesized to coordinate both the causes and effects of positive social interactions, and may be involved in positive physiological adaptations such as buffering the deleterious effects of stress and promoting resilience. The proposed research will examine whether and how oxytocin influences responses to stress in humans and will consider effects in relation to those of social support.
Methods/design: Experimental research will be used to determine whether exogenously administered oxytocin (intranasal) influences psychological and physiological outcomes under conditions of stress across gender and age in adulthood. Hypotheses to be tested are: 1) Oxytocin ameliorates the deleterious neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and subjective effects of stress; 2) Oxytocin and social support have similar and additive stress-buffering effects; 3) Oxytocin effects are stronger in women versus men; and 4) Oxytocin effects are similar across a range of adult ages. Hypotheses will be tested with a placebo-controlled, double-blind study using a sample of healthy men and women recruited from the community. Participants are randomly assigned to receive either oxytocin or placebo. They undergo a social stress manipulation with and without social support (randomly assigned), and outcome measures are obtained at multiple times during the procedure.
Discussion: Understanding the determinants of healthy aging is a major public health priority and identifying effective measures to prevent or delay the onset of chronic diseases is an important goal. Experimental research on oxytocin, social relationships, and health in adulthood will contribute to the scientific knowledge base for maximizing active life and health expectancy. At conclusion of the study we will have solid evidence concerning the effects of oxytocin on stress response and whether it has similar effects across age and gender groups. A neurobiological understanding of resilience can inform efforts for both prevention and intervention of diseases or problems common in later life.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01011465.