While nearly everybody has at least heard the word “hormones,” many people are probably unaware of what they are, or what roles they play in maintaining our daily health and well-being. In short, hormones are chemical substances that influence and control the behavior of cells and organs. One such hormone is oxytocin, which can have many different effects on the human body. If recent research is correct, this hormone may also help regenerate damaged muscle tissue.
The Role of Oxytocin
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “cuddling” or the “bonding” hormone. The reason for these nicknames is that it is released while people snuggle or mentally bond with their significant other. As from these traits, studies suggest that oxytocin could help alleviate stress, solidify important emotional memories and promote aggression against harmful outsiders, among other things. Oxytocin also contributes significantly to the child-birthing process, causing contractions in the uterus that allow the baby move out of the womb. Once the child is born, this hormone assists the mother with breastfeeding her child.
Building Up Muscles
While it already wears many hats, oxytocin may also be very helpful to our muscles. Previous research has detected oxytocin-responsive receptors on the precursors of muscle cells. Because of this finding, some researchers began to speculate that oxytocin injections could dramatically improve the regenerative capabilities of muscular tissues.
Seeking to test the validity of this theory, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley injected oxytocin underneath the skin of old mice. Of course, as with humans, age makes it harder for the bodies of mice to repair muscle tissues. Moreover, the research team found that as mice get older, their levels of oxytocin steadily decrease. The authors also reported that groups of old and young mice had differing numbers of oxytocin receptors, with the former having considerably fewer than the latter (oxytocin receptors are simply proteins that bind to oxytocin).
Doses of oxytocin were administered to older mice for four consecutive days. After completing this first step, the research team then injured the mice’s muscles, and proceeded to give them oxytocin injections for five more days. After this nine day treatment period had ended, the authors then analyzed the mice’s muscle tissues, comparing them against a control group of mice that was not given oxytocin. The study noted that the muscles of the oxytocin-receiving mice were able to heal much faster after injury. In fact, injured tissues in these rodents healed 80 percent as well as damaged muscles in a set of young mice.
The authors also studied how younger mice would respond to having their oxytocin gene disabled. Initially, the genetically-altered mice encountered no significant health problems. Upon reaching adulthood, however, this group began to exhibit noticeable signs of premature aging. In addition, the UC Berkeley team experimented with blocking the effects of oxytocin in the bodies of young mice. In response to this procedure, the mice’s muscles demonstrated a greatly reduced capacity to repair damage, to the point that injuries caused them to resemble old muscular tissue.
It bears mentioning that oxytocin did not trigger abnormal cell division after being injected into younger mice. This is an encouraging finding, as cells that divide in an uncontrolled manner can lead to the onset of cancer. In the past, other molecules with tissue-regenerating abilities have been found to cause this very problem.
Possible Impact on Medicine
So how could this study eventually affect human patients? The researchers would like to find some way to use oxytocin to counteract aging in both men and women. In keeping with this goal, UC Berkeley researchers plan to study if oxytocin can help prolong the lives of animals, and if its possible anti-aging benefits translate to human subjects. The study was published on the website of the journal Nature Communications.