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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011 Oct;36(11):2159-68. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.95. Epub 2011 Jun 15.

The neuropeptide oxytocin facilitates pro-social behavior and prevents social avoidance in rats and mice.

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Department of Behavioral and Molecular Neurobiology, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany.


Social avoidance and social phobia are core symptoms of various psychopathologies but their underlying etiology remains poorly understood. Therefore, this study aims to reveal pro-social effects of the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT), under both basal and stress-induced social avoidance conditions in rodents using a social preference paradigm. We initially show that intracerebroventricular (i.c.v.) application of an OT receptor antagonist (OTR-A) in naïve male rats (0.75 μg/5 μl), or mice (20 μg/2 μl), reduced social exploration of a novel con-specific indicative of attenuated social preference. Previous exposure of male rats to a single social defeat resulted in loss of their social preference and social avoidance, which could be restored by i.c.v. infusion of synthetic OT (0.1 μg/5 μl) 20 min before the social preference test. Although the amygdala has been implicated in both social and OT-mediated actions, bilateral OTR-A (0.1 μg/1 μl) or OT (0.01 μg/1 μl) administration into various subnuclei of the amygdala did not affect basal or stress-induced social preference behavior, respectively. Finally, we demonstrate the social specificity of these OT-mediated effects by showing that neither an arginine vasopressin V1a receptor antagonist (0.75 μg/5 μl, i.c.v.) nor the anxiogenic drug pentylenetetrazol (15 mg/kg, i.p.) altered social preference, with OTR-A not affecting non-social anxiety on the elevated plus-maze. Overall, the data indicate that the basal activity of the endogenous brain OT system is sufficient to promote natural occurring social preference in rodents while synthetic OT shows potential to reverse stress-induced social avoidance and might thus be of use for treating social phobia and social dysfunction in humans.

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