Oxytocin and vasopressin effects on the neural response to social cooperation are modulated by sex in humans

Brain Imaging Behav. 2015 Dec;9(4):754-64. doi: 10.1007/s11682-014-9333-9.


Recent research has examined the effects of oxytocin (OT) and vasopressin (AVP) on human social behavior and brain function. However, most participants have been male, while previous research in our lab demonstrated sexually differentiated effects of OT and AVP on the neural response to reciprocated cooperation. Here we extend our previous work by significantly increasing the number of participants to enable the use of more stringent statistical thresholds that permit more precise localization of OT and AVP effects in the brain. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 153 men and 151 women were randomized to receive 24 IU intranasal OT, 20 IU intranasal AVP or placebo. Afterwards, they were imaged with fMRI while playing an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma Game with same-sex partners. Sex differences were observed for effects of OT on the neural response to reciprocated cooperation, such that OT increased the caduate/putamen response among males, whereas it decreased this response among females. Thus, 24 IU OT may increase the reward or salience of positive social interactions among men, while decreasing their reward or salience among women. Similar sex differences were also observed for AVP effects within bilateral insula and right supramarginal gyrus when a more liberal statistical threshold was employed. While our findings support previous suggestions that exogenous nonapeptides may be effective treatments for disorders such as depression and autism spectrum disorder, they caution against uniformly extending such treatments to men and women alike.

Keywords: Cooperation; Oxytocin; Sex differences; Vasopressin; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adolescent
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / drug effects
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage*
  • Prisoner Dilemma
  • Psychotropic Drugs / administration & dosage*
  • Reward
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Vasopressins / administration & dosage*
  • Young Adult


  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin
  • Oxygen