Oxytocin Upregulation as a Potential Path to Improve Neural Plasticity

Researchers here describe a role for oxytocin in promoting neural plasticity in adults, the integration of new neurons into existing neural circuits. It is possible that upregulation of oxytocin could promote this activity. It is considered that increased neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons and their incorporation into brain activity, is beneficial. Neurogenesis declines with age, and restoration of more youthful levels may go some way towards slowing the decline of cognitive functions in later life.

Learning a new task, mastering a musical instrument or being able to adapt to the constantly changing environment are all possible thanks to the brain's plasticity, or its ability to modify itself by rearranging existing neural networks and forming new ones to acquire new functional properties. This also helps neural circuits to remain healthy, robust and stable. To better understand brain plasticity, researchers used mouse models to investigate how brain cells build connections with new neurons born in adult brains.

The researchers discovered that levels of oxytocin increase in the olfactory bulb, peaking at the time the new neurons incorporate themselves into neural networks. Using viral labeling, confocal microscopy, and cell-type specific RNA sequencing, the team discovered that oxytocin triggers a signaling pathway - a series of molecular events inside cells - that promotes the maturation of synapses, that is, the connections of newly integrated adult-born neurons. When the researchers eliminated the oxytocin receptor, the cells had underdeveloped synapses and impaired function.

"Our findings suggest that oxytocin drives development and synaptic integration of new neurons within the adult brain, directly contributing to adaptability and circuit plasticity. Oxytocin is normally present in our brain, so if we understand how to turn it on or off or mobilize it, we can help keep our circuit connections healthy by promoting the growth of underdeveloped connections or strengthening new ones. Our findings also suggest that oxytocin could promote the growth of new neurons to repair damaged tissue. Further studies are needed to explore these possibilities."

Link: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/973857