Oct 19, 2012 1:00 PM

Author: Phil Sahm

Williams syndrome (WS) is a disease of paradoxes.

In a study published June 12, 2012, Julie R. Korenberg, PhD, MD and colleagues described a trial with 21 people—13 with WS and eight healthy “control” participants—to find out if oxytocin is related to emotion. They had the subjects listen to music, which is known to elicit an emotional response. Before the music started, they drew blood to determine each participant’s baseline level of oxytocin and then. Those with WS had three times as much oxytocin as the control participants. As they listened to music, blood was drawn at regular intervals and Korenberg found that those with WS experienced an exaggerated increase in oxytocin and AVP (arginine vasopressin), another hormone associated with emotions. To ensure that the results were accurate, they tested the effects of cold water, a physical stress, on all participants and found the same results as with listening to music.

In addition music, they also also evaluated participants for willingness to approach strangers, emotional states, and maladaptive behaviors. The results suggest that increased oxytocin is linked to both increased desire to approach strangers and decreased adaptive behavior, while AVP might be related to increased maladaptive behaviors.

The study results indicate that the missing genes in WS affect the release of oxytocin and AVP through the hypothalamus-pituitary in the brain. They also suggest a possible biological basis for increased anxiety and for the paradox of the increased tendency to approach people but poor social relationships in those with WS and possibly others.  

Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone,” but Korenberg’s research suggests that simple characterization might be an overreach. Not only is higher oxytocin related to a greater tendency to approach people, but also with less ability to interact. 

Phil Sahm

Phil Sahm is the Senior Science writer at University of Utah Health Care.

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