During breastfeeding or suckling, maternal oxytocin levels are raised by somatosensory stimulation. Oxytocin may, however, also be released by nonnoxious stimuli such as touch, warm temperature etc. in plasma and in cerebrospinal fluid. Consequently, oxytocin may be involved in physiological and behavioral effects induced by social interaction in a more general context. In both male and female rats oxytocin exerts potent physiological antistress effects. If daily oxytocin injections are repeated over a 5-day period, blood pressure is decreased by 10-20 mmHg, the withdrawal latency to heat stimuli is prolonged, cortisol levels are decreased and insulin and cholecystokinin levels are increased. These effects last from 1 to several weeks after the last injection. After repeated oxytocin treatment weight gain may be promoted and the healing rate of wounds increased. Most behavioral and physiological effects induced by oxytocin can be blocked by oxytocin antagonists. In contrast, the antistress effects can not, suggesting that unidentified oxytocin receptors may exist. The prolonged latency in the tail- flick test can be temporarily reversed by administration of naloxone, suggesting that endogenous opioid activity has been increased by the oxytocin injections. In contrast, the long-term lowering of blood pressure and of cortisol levels as well as the sedative effects of oxytocin have been found to be related to an increased activity of central α2-adrenoceptors. Positive social interactions have been related to health-promoting effects. Oxytocin released in response to social stimuli may be part of a neuroendocrine substrate which underlies the benefits of positive social experiences. Such processes may in addition explain the health-promoting effects of certain alternative therapies. Because of the special properties of oxytocin, including the fact that it can become conditioned to psychological state or imagery, oxytocin may also mediate the benefits attributed to therapies such as hypnosis or meditation.
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