Oxytocin (IPA: ) (Greek, "quick birth") is a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.

In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity.

In women, it is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively. Synthetic oxytocin is sold as medication under the trade names Pitocin and Syntocinon as well as generic oxytocin.

Synthesis, storage and release

Oxytocin is made in magnocellular neurosecretory cells in the supraoptic nucleus and paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and is released into the blood from the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is also made by some neurons in the paraventricular nucleus that project to other parts of the brain and to the spinal cord.

In the pituitary gland, oxytocin is packaged in large, dense-core vesicles, where it is bound to neurophysin I as shown in the inset of the figure; neurophysin is a large peptide fragment of the larger precursor protein molecule from which oxytocin is derived by enzymatic cleavage.

Secretion of oxytocin from the neurosecretory nerve endings is regulated by the electrical activity of the oxytocin cells in the hypothalamus. These cells generate action potentials that propagate down axons to the nerve endings in the pituitary; the endings contain large numbers of oxytocin-containing vesicles, which are released by exocytosis when the nerve terminals are depolarised.

Structure and relation to vasopressin

Oxytocin is a peptide of nine amino acids (a nonapeptide). The sequence is cysteine - tyrosine - isoleucine - glutamine - asparagine - cysteine - proline - leucine - glycine (CYIQNCPLG). The cysteine residues form a sulfur bridge. Oxytocin has a molecular mass of 1007 daltons. One international unit (IU) of oxytocin is the equivalent of about 2 micrograms of pure peptide.

The structure of oxytocin is very similar to that of vasopressin (cysteine - tyrosine - phenylalanine - glutamine - asparagine - cysteine - proline - arginine - glycine), also a nonapeptide with a sulfur bridge, whose sequence differs from oxytocin by 2 amino acids. A table showing the sequences of members of the vasopressin/oxytocin superfamily and the species expressing them is present in the vasopressin article. Oxytocin and vasopressin were isolated and synthesized by Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953, work for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1955.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are the only known hormones released by the human posterior pituitary gland to act at a distance. However, oxytocin neurons make other peptides, including corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and dynorphin, for example, that act locally. The magnocellular neurons that make oxytocin are adjacent to magnocellular neurons that make vasopressin, and are similar in many respects.


Oxytocin has peripheral (hormonal) actions, and also has actions in the brain. The actions of oxytocin are mediated by specific, high affinity oxytocin receptors. The oxytocin receptor is a G-protein-coupled receptor which requires Mg2+ and cholesterol. It belongs to the rhodopsin-type (class I) group of G-protein-coupled receptors.

Peripheral (hormonal) actions

The peripheral actions of oxytocin mainly reflect secretion from the pituitary gland. (See oxytocin receptor for more detail on its action.)

Actions of oxytocin within the brain

Oxytocin secreted from the pituitary gland cannot re-enter the brain because of the blood-brain barrier. Instead, the behavioral effects of oxytocin are thought to reflect release from centrally projecting oxytocin neurons, different from those that project to the pituitary gland. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in many parts of the brain and spinal cord, including the amygdala, ventromedial hypothalamus, septum and brainstem.

Drug forms

Synthetic oxytocin is sold as medication under the trade names Pitocin and Syntocinon and also as generic oxytocin. Oxytocin is destroyed in the gastrointestinal tract, and therefore must be administered by injection or as nasal spray. Oxytocin has a half-life of typically about three minutes in the blood. Oxytocin given intravenously does not enter the brain in significant quantities - it is excluded from the brain by the blood-brain barrier. There is no evidence for significant CNS entry of oxytocin by nasal spray. Oxytocin nasal sprays have been used to stimulate breastfeeding but the efficacy of this approach is doubtful.

Injected oxytocin analogues are used to induce labour and support labour in case of non-progression of parturition. It has largely replaced ergotamine as the principal agent to increase uterine tone in acute postpartum haemorrhage. Oxytocin is also used in veterinary medicine to facilitate birth and to increase milk production. The tocolytic agent atosiban (Tractocile) acts as an antagonist of oxytocin receptors; this drug is registered in many countries to suppress premature labour between 24 and 33 weeks of gestation. It has fewer side-effects than drugs previously used for this purpose (ritodrine, salbutamol and terbutaline).

Some have suggested that the trust-inducing property of oxytocin might help those who suffer from social anxieties, while others have noted the potential for abuse with confidence tricks.

Potential adverse reactions

Oxytocin is relatively safe when used at recommended doses. Potential side effects include:


Virtually all vertebrates have an oxytocin-like nonapeptide hormone that supports reproductive functions and a vasopressin-like nonapeptide hormone involved in water regulation. The two genes are always located close to each other (less than 15,000 bases apart) on the same chromosome and are transcribed in opposite directions. It is thought that the two genes resulted from a gene duplication event; the ancestral gene is estimated to be about 500 million years old and is found in cyclostomes (modern members of the Agnatha).

External links

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This article is based on "Oxytocin" from the free encyclopedia Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org). It is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licencse. In the Wikipedia you can find a list of the authors by visiting the following address: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oxytocin&action=history