Social approach and social vigilance are differentially regulated by oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020 Aug;45(9):1423-1430. doi: 10.1038/s41386-020-0657-4. Epub 2020 Mar 20.


Oxytocin is currently being considered as a novel therapeutic for anxiety disorders due to its ability to promote affiliative behaviors. In the nucleus accumbens (NAc) activation of oxytocin receptors (OTR) promotes social approach (time spent near an unfamiliar individual). Here, we show that stressful social experiences reduce the expression of NAc OTR mRNA, coinciding with decreases in social approach. Social stressors also increase social vigilance, characterized as orienting to an unfamiliar individual without approaching. Vigilance is a key component of behavioral inhibition, a personality trait that is a risk factor for anxiety disorders. To understand whether NAc OTR can modulate both social approach and vigilance, we use pharmacological approaches to assess the impact of activation or inhibition of NAc OTR downstream pathways on these behaviors. First, we show that in unstressed male and female California mice, inhibition of OTR by an unbiased antagonist (L-368,899) reduces social approach but does not induce social vigilance. Next, we show that infusion of Atosiban, an OTR-Gq antagonist/OTR-Gi agonist, has the same effect in unstressed females. Finally, we show that Carbetocin, a biased OTR-Gq agonist, increases social approach in stressed females while simultaneously inhibiting social vigilance. Taken together these data suggest that OTR in the NAc differentially modulate social approach and social vigilance, primarily through an OTR-Gq mechanism. Importantly, pharmacological inhibition of OTR alone is insufficient to induce vigilance in unstressed mice, suggesting that mechanisms modulating social approach may be distinct from mechanisms modulating social vigilance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Nucleus Accumbens* / metabolism
  • Oxytocin
  • Receptors, Oxytocin* / genetics
  • Receptors, Oxytocin* / metabolism
  • Social Behavior*
  • Wakefulness


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Oxytocin