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Neuroscience. 2000;95(2):567-75.

Brain oxytocin: differential inhibition of neuroendocrine stress responses and anxiety-related behaviour in virgin, pregnant and lactating rats.

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Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany.


The involvement of brain oxytocin in the attenuated responsiveness of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and the oxytocin systems to external stressors found in pregnant and lactating rats has been studied, including both neuroendocrine and behavioural aspects. Intracerebroventricular infusion of an oxytocin receptor antagonist (0.75 microg/5 microl), but not of vehicle, elevated basal corticotropin and corticosterone secretion into blood of virgin female, but not of late pregnant or lactating rats. Oxytocin antagonist treatment further elevated the stress-induced (exposure to the elevated plus-maze or forced swimming) secretion of both corticotropin and corticosterone, but only in virgin and not in pregnant or lactating rats. Thus, corticotropin and corticosterone plasma concentrations remained attenuated in antagonist-treated pregnant and lactating animals. In contrast, infusion of the oxytocin antagonist significantly elevated the stress-induced secretion of oxytocin into blood in pregnant and lactating, but not in virgin, animals, indicating an autoinhibitory influence of intracerebral oxytocin on neurohypophysial oxytocin secretion induced by non-reproduction-related stimuli. Treatment with oxytocin antagonist 10 min prior to behavioural testing on the elevated plus-maze significantly reduced the anxiety-related behaviour in both pregnant and lactating rats, without exerting similar effects in virgin female rats. The results demonstrate a tonic inhibitory effect of endogenous oxytocin on corticotropin and, consequently, corticosterone secretion in virgin female rats, an effect which is absent in the peripartum period. In contrast, an anxiolytic action of endogenous oxytocin was detectable exclusively in pregnant and lactating rats. Therefore, we conclude that the actions of intracerebral oxytocin include independent effects on the responses of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and oxytocin systems to stressors and the anxiety-related behaviour which are modulated by the reproductive state of the animals.

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