Integrative functions of lactational hormones in social behavior and stress management

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1997 Jan 15;807:164-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1997.tb51918.x.


For mammalian reproduction to succeed, self-defense and asociality must be subjugated to positive social behaviors, at least during birth, lactation, and sexual behavior. Perhaps the important task of regulating the interaction between social and agonistic behaviors is managed, in part, by interactions between two related neurochemical systems that incorporate oxytocin and vasopressin in their functions. The neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin participate in important reproductive functions, such as parturition and lactation, and homeostatic responses, including modulation of the adrenal axis. Recent evidence also implicates these hormones in social aspects of reproductive behaviors. For example, oxytocin is important for a variety of positive social behaviors, including the regulation of maternal-infant interactions. In adult animals, oxytocin may facilitate both social contact and selective social interactions associated with social attachment and pair bonding, and it participates in the regulation of parasympathetic functions. Vasopressin, in contrast, is associated with behaviors that might be broadly classified as "defensive" including enhanced arousal, attention, or vigilance, increased aggressive behavior, and a general increase in sympathetic functions. On the basis of the literature on the functions of these hormones and our own recent findings, we propose that dynamic interactions between oxytocin and vasopressin are components of a larger system which integrates the neuroendocrine and autonomic changes associated with mammalian social behaviors and the concurrent regulation of the stress axis. In addition, studies of lactating females provide a valuable model for understanding the more general neuroendocrinology of the stress axis. Peptide hormones, including oxytocin and vasopressin, do not readily cross the blood-brain barrier and must be administered centrally (i.c.v.) to reach the brain. Nasal sprays have been used to promote milk let down and have been used in some behavioral studies, but the extent to which such compounds reach the brain is not known. Therefore, virtually nothing is known regarding the effects in humans of centrally administered oxytocin. The study of human lactation, in conjunction with animal research, provides an opportunity to begin to develop viable hypotheses regarding the behavioral effects of oxytocin.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Glands / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Labor, Obstetric
  • Lactation / physiology*
  • Mammals
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Milk / metabolism
  • Oxytocin / physiology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prolactin / physiology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / prevention & control*
  • Vasopressins / physiology


  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin
  • Prolactin