The Oxytocin Receptor: From Intracellular Signaling to Behavior

Physiol Rev. 2018 Jul 1;98(3):1805-1908. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00031.2017.


The many facets of the oxytocin (OXT) system of the brain and periphery elicited nearly 25,000 publications since 1930 (see FIGURE 1 , as listed in PubMed), which revealed central roles for OXT and its receptor (OXTR) in reproduction, and social and emotional behaviors in animal and human studies focusing on mental and physical health and disease. In this review, we discuss the mechanisms of OXT expression and release, expression and binding of the OXTR in brain and periphery, OXTR-coupled signaling cascades, and their involvement in behavioral outcomes to assemble a comprehensive picture of the central and peripheral OXT system. Traditionally known for its role in milk let-down and uterine contraction during labor, OXT also has implications in physiological, and also behavioral, aspects of reproduction, such as sexual and maternal behaviors and pair bonding, but also anxiety, trust, sociability, food intake, or even drug abuse. The many facets of OXT are, on a molecular basis, brought about by a single receptor. The OXTR, a 7-transmembrane G protein-coupled receptor capable of binding to either Gαi or Gαq proteins, activates a set of signaling cascades, such as the MAPK, PKC, PLC, or CaMK pathways, which converge on transcription factors like CREB or MEF-2. The cellular response to OXT includes regulation of neurite outgrowth, cellular viability, and increased survival. OXTergic projections in the brain represent anxiety and stress-regulating circuits connecting the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, amygdala, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, or the medial prefrontal cortex. Which OXT-induced patterns finally alter the behavior of an animal or a human being is still poorly understood, and studying those OXTR-coupled signaling cascades is one initial step toward a better understanding of the molecular background of those behavioral effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arginine Vasopressin / metabolism
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Calcium Signaling
  • Eating
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Satiety Response


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Arginine Vasopressin
  • Oxytocin