Oxytocin and vasopressin are pituitary neuropeptides that have been shown to affect social processes in mammals. There is growing interest in these molecules and their receptors as potential precipitants of, and/or treatments for, social deficits in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder. Numerous behavioral-genetic studies suggest that there is an association between these peptides and individual social abilities; however, an explanatory model that links hormonal activity at the receptor level to complex human behavior remains elusive. The following review summarizes the known associations between the oxytocin and vasopressin neuropeptide systems and social neurocircuits in the brain. Following a micro- to macro- level trajectory, current literature on the synthesis and secretion of these peptides, and the structure, function and distribution of their respective receptors is first surveyed. Next, current models regarding the mechanism of action of these peptides on microcircuitry and other neurotransmitter systems are discussed. Functional neuroimaging evidence on the acute effects of exogenous administration of these peptides on brain activity is then reviewed. Overall, a model in which the local neuromodulatory effects of pituitary neuropeptides on brainstem and basal forebrain regions strengthen signaling within social neurocircuits proves appealing. However, these findings are derived from animal models; more research is needed to clarify the relevance of these mechanisms to human behavior and treatment of social deficits in neuropsychiatric disorders.
Keywords: OXTR; autism; oxytocin; vasopressin; vasopressin receptor subtype 1a.