In laboratory studies using brain tissue, oxytocin appeared to reverse the effect of a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease on brain cells. The hormone may restore the cells’ “plasticity,” which is vital for memory and learning.

The hormone oxytocin originates in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Oxytocin plays important roles in childbirth, breastfeeding, and social bonding.

It may also facilitate romantic attachment. The body releases the hormone during sexual activity, earning the chemical its popular reputation as the “love hormone.”

Oxytocin’s related role in social bonding suggests that it could also help treat social anxiety and autism.

Its effect on memory is less well-established, but an older study in mice found that it can improve long-term spatial learning and memory.

Recently, researchers at Tokyo University of Science in Japan and Kitasato University, also in Tokyo, Japan, wondered whether or not the chemical could help protect nerve cells in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The scientists propose that oxytocin could have potential as a treatment for the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“At present,” says Prof. Saitoh, “there are no sufficiently satisfactory drugs to treat dementia, and new therapies with novel mechanisms of action are desired.”

“Our study puts forth the interesting possibility that oxytocin could be a novel therapeutic modality for the treatment of memory loss associated with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” he adds.

“We expect that our findings will open up a new pathway to the creation of new drugs for the treatment of dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.”

– Prof. Akiyoshi Saitoh

So far, however, the research has only involved the acute effects of beta-amyloid and oxytocin on slices of brain tissue in the laboratory.

Alzheimer’s is a complex, poorly understood condition that develops gradually over the course of several years.

Much more work will be necessary to test the restorative effects of oxytocin on nerve plasticity in living animals. If successful, efforts would likely progress to clinical research in people.

The scientists note in their paper that a major stumbling block to the development of a viable treatment is the fact that the blood-brain barrier impairs the passage of oxytocin into the brain.

Medical reference: Medical News Today