Oxytocin and Social Relationships: From Attachment to Bond Disruption

Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2018:35:97-117. doi: 10.1007/7854_2017_10.


Social relationships throughout life are vital for well-being and physical and mental health. A significant amount of research in animal models as well as in humans suggests that oxytocin (OT) plays an important role in the development of the capacity to form social bonds, the mediation of the positive aspects of early-life nurturing on adult bonding capacity, and the maintenance of social bonding. Here, we focus on the extensive research on a socially monogamous rodent model organism, the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). OT facilitates mating-induced pair bonds in adults through interaction with the mesolimbic dopamine system. Variation in striatal OT receptor density predicts resilience and susceptibility to neonatal social neglect in female prairie voles. Finally, in adults, loss of a partner results in multiple disruptions in OT signaling, including decreased OT release in the striatum, which is caused by an activation of the brain corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) system. The dramatic behavioral consequence of partner loss is increased depressive-like behavior reminiscent of bereavement. Importantly, infusions of OT into the striatum of adults prevents the onset of depressive-like behavior following partner loss, and evoking endogenous OT release using melanocortin agonists during neonatal social isolation rescues impairments in social bonding in adulthood. This work has important translational implications relevant to the disruptions of social bonds in childhood and in adults.

Keywords: Attachment; Bereavement; Grieving; Monogamy; Pair bond; Social loss.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arvicolinae / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Object Attachment*
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Pair Bond*
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Social Behavior


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Oxytocin