Oxytocin influences processing of socially relevant cues in the ventral tegmental area of the human brain


Background: Evidence accumulates that the neuropeptide oxytocin plays an important role in mediating social interaction among humans and that a dysfunction in oxytocin-modulated brain mechanisms might lie at the core of disturbed social behavior in neuropsychiatric disease. Explanatory models suggest that oxytocin guides social approach and avoidance by modulating the perceived salience of socially meaningful cues. Animal data point toward the ventral tegmental area (VTA) as the brain site where this modulation takes place.

Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a social incentive delay task to test the hypothesis that oxytocin modulates the neural processing of socially relevant cues in the VTA, hereby facilitating behavioral response. Twenty-eight nulliparous women (not taking any hormones) received intranasal oxytocin or placebo in a double-blind randomized clinical trial with a parallel-group design.

Results: Oxytocin significantly enhanced VTA activation in response to cues signaling social reward (friendly face) or social punishment (angry face). Oxytocin effects on behavioral performance were modulated by individual differences in sociability with enhanced performance in women scoring low but decreased performance in women scoring high on self-reported measures of agreeableness.

Conclusions: Our data provide evidence that the VTA is the human brain site where oxytocin attaches salience to socially relevant cues. This mechanism might play an important role in triggering motivation to react at the prospect of social reward or punishment.


Oxytocin influences processing of socially relevant cues in the ventral tegmental area of the human brain. Groppe SE, Gossen A, Rademacher L, Hahn A, Westphal L, Gründer G, Spreckelmeyer KN. Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Aug 1;74(3):172-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.12.023. Epub 2013 Feb 16.

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