The AG Schwarz was part of an international collaboration coordinated by Prof. Valery Grinevich from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim and published a research article on the role of the neuropeptide oxytocin in social interactions.

The paper is the successful continuation of a long-standing collaboration between the Grinevich and Schwarz labs that resulted already in a series of interesting publications.

Tang Y, Benusiglio D, Lefevere A, Hilfiger L, Althammer F, Bludau A, Hagiwara D, Baudon A, Darbon P, Schimmer J, Kirchner MK, Roy RK, Wang S, Eliava M, Wagner S, Oberhuber M, Conzelmann KK, Schwarz MK, Stern JE, Leng G, Neumann I, Charlet A, Grinevich V. (2020) Social tough promotes inter-female communication via activation of oxytocin parvocellular neurons. Nature Neurosci. online!

The neuropeptide oxytocin promotes social interaction through gentle touch

From the softest caress to the harshest blow, touch lies at the heart of our sensory experience of the world and shapes the way we perceive it, especially during intimate interactions with other humans. The sense of touch is one of the central forms of perceptual experience, although it has often been overshadowed by vision in philosophy, scientific research and psychology. During evolution, vertebrates developed a plethora of sophisticated sensory systems, which represented a clear evolutionary advantage and entailed that higher mammals were able to discriminate between pain, moderate and gentle forms of touch. As social touch is a prerequisite for intimacy and of paramount importance for the formation of trust-based relationships, various forms of gentle touch, grooming and caressing can be observed throughout the mammalian kingdom including rodents, felines, canines and primates. The establishment and maintenance of social hierarchies are modulated by various chemicals in the brain. During the last decade, one molecule has emerged as one of the key players: the neuropeptide oxytocin. Oxytocin not only facilitates birth and lactation, but actively fine-tunes the brain to modulate emotions, sexual intercourse, pair bonding and parental behavior. However, how exactly oxytocin promotes these prosocial behaviors and what triggers the actual release of the neuropeptide remained a mystery. This question has now been tackled by an international collaboration of research teams from Germany, France, Israel, the USA, and the United Kingdom, which performed the first-ever electrophysiological recording of individual oxytocin neurons in freely moving female rats and demonstrated that oxytocin neurons were specifically activated upon physical touch. The article, which has been published in the journal Nature Neuroscience(Tang, Benusiglio, Lefevre, Hilfiger et al., published online 27.7 2020), revealed that a small population of oxytocin neurons, so called parvocellular oxytocin neurons, are responsible for the translation of sensory signals from the body into various forms of social interactions. The authors applied a variety of advanced techniques to show that the activation of these few parvocellular neurons induces subsequent excitation of much larger population of oxytocin cells and, in turn, promotes inter-female communications. These findings provide fundamentally new insights into how the neuropeptide orchestrates social behavior. Furthermore, the results obtained in this work support a vision on oxytocin as a powerful agent to treat mental disorders: a combination of sensory body stimulation (for example, via huddling or massage) and intranasal oxytocin administration might synergistically mitigate socio-emotional alterations in humans afflicted with mental diseases, such as autism spectrum disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.

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