The influence of depressive symptomatology and perceived stress on plasma and salivary oxytocin before, during and after a support enhancement intervention

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Sep;36(8):1249-56. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.03.007. Epub 2011 Apr 19.


Oxytocin (OT) activity increases in response to stress as well as to warm social contact. Subclinical depression is associated with higher stress but less reward from social contacts. The present investigation was intended to examine whether husbands and wives with high depressive symptomatology scores have increased plasma and salivary OT that may be mediated partly by higher perceived stress, and also to assess whether an intervention to convey partner support through "warm touch" may reduce effects of depressive symptoms on OT. In this study, 34 healthy married couples (n=68) ages 20-39 provided self reports of depressive symptoms (CESD) and stress (Perceived Stress Scale) before being randomly assigned to a 4-week intervention study enhancing partner support through "warm touch", or to a "behavior monitoring" control group. Plasma oxytocin levels were obtained pre- and post-intervention, while salivary oxytocin was taken at home during week 1 and week 4. Results revealed that subjects with higher depressive symptoms scores had higher plasma OT levels at pre-intervention, and higher salivary OT levels at home during week 1 (p<.05). Plasma OT results were moderated by gender such that plasma OT levels were highest among females high in depressive symptomology. Higher perceived stress was also linked to both higher depressive symptomatology (r=+65, p<.0001) and plasma OT (p< .05) and a significant mediator. During the intervention, salivary OT remained elevated among subjects high in depressive symptomatology in the control group but not the intervention group. At post-intervention, plasma OT levels in subjects with vs. without depressive symptomatology no longer differed. Results indicate that subclinical depression is associated with elevated plasma and salivary OT levels, which may be mediated in part by increased stress. OT differences linked to subclinical depression were minimized by the warm touch intervention.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Depression / blood
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Family Characteristics
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / methods
  • Oxytocin / blood*
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Perception / physiology
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / blood
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy*
  • Time Factors
  • Touch / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocin