Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Social Behavior


Science 7 November 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5903, pp. 900 - 904

Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and the Neurogenetics of Sociality

Zoe R. Donaldson1 and Larry J. Young1,2

1 Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA.
2 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30329, USA.


There is growing evidence that the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin modulate complex social behavior and social cognition. These ancient neuropeptides display a marked conservation in gene structure and expression, yet diversity in the genetic regulation of their receptors seems to underlie natural variation in social behavior, both between and within species. Human studies are beginning to explore the roles of these neuropeptides in social cognition and behavior and suggest that variation in the genes encoding their receptors may contribute to variation in human social behavior by altering brain function. Understanding the neurobiology and neurogenetics of social cognition and behavior has important implications, both clinically and for society.

Oxytocin and vasopressin's roles in facilitating species-typical social and reproductive behaviors are as evolutionarily conserved as their structure and expression, although the specific behaviors that they regulate are quite diverse. Within vertebrates, the distinct oxytocin and vasopressin peptide lineages often show sexually dimorphic expression and behavioral effects. The oxytocin lineage of peptides influences female sociosexual behaviors including sexual intercourse, parturition, lactation, maternal attachment, and pair bonding. Conversely, vasopressin typically influences male reproduction and behavior. Vasopressin is involved in erection and ejaculation in species including humans, rats, and rabbits, and it mediates a variety of male-typical social behaviors including aggression, territoriality, and pair bonding in various species. This sexual dichotomy in function is not universal, however, as it is becoming increasingly clear that both peptides have behavioral roles in males and females.

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