January 26, 2012

Jennie Stevenson, assistant professor of psychology

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Jennie Stevenson, assistant professor of psychology, describes how certain hormones relate to anxiety, depression and alcohol addiction.

Q. How did you become interested in how certain hormones affect the body?

A: I have a long-standing interest in psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. As a postdoc I became really focused on the hormone oxytocin because it is so important for mental as well as for physical health. It was originally studied because of its role in labor and breast-feeding.

Because of this, people thought it was really just a female hormone. After studies demonstrated that it played a role in attachment between moms and their babies during breastfeeding, researchers began to investigate its role in attachment and bonding in general. It turns out that oxytocin is important for females and males, and that it affects social behavior.

Oxytocin is important for the ability to form attachments. It is one of the reasons breastfeeding mothers show decreased stress responses compared to those who bottle feed. The hormone is also released during sexual arousal and/or orgasm and may increase the desire to bond after sex. Couples who touch each other more show higher levels of oxytocin, and when a dog owner gazes into his or her dog's eyes, both the owner and dog release oxytocin. When people are given synthetic oxytocin, they show greater generosity and report increased feelings of trust. This is just a short list of the many pro-social, anti-stress findings related to oxytocin.

I want to know more about oxytocin's role in how we cope with stress and its role in dampening anxiety. The fact that oxytocin promotes stress-coping and reduces anxiety makes sense if you think about how we cannot connect socially when we do not feel safe, and that we often use social support to cope with stress and anxiety. The release of oxytocin in the body may drive the behavior of seeking social support in the event of stress — or seeking social support may cause oxytocin release. If anxiety occurs when the oxytocin system is not functioning properly, this may explain why, in some cases, anxiety prevents people from connecting socially. At this point, the answers to these questions are unknown.

My goal now is to understand how oxytocin is regulated in terms of its role in stress-coping and to investigate what oxytocin might have to do with addiction.

Q. What's the connection between oxytocin and alcohol addiction?

A. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that stress and anxiety are tied to drinking. Once people have a history of drinking, if they try to stop, stress can precipitate relapse and it might perpetuate the downward spiral to becoming a full-blown addict.

I'm really interested in that overlap between stress and anxiety and alcohol drinking. Alcohol is one of the most complicated and toxic drugs in terms of how it affects our brain and bodies. You would be hard-pressed to come up with a brain chemical signaling system that alcohol doesn't affect, whereas drugs like cocaine and heroin seem to target mainly one chemical signaling system. This makes it hard for us to help people who have alcohol problems, because we don't know what brain systems to target.

I want to know more about how oxytocin might play a role in alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction — how alcohol might be affecting the oxytocin system. Oxytocin might be one of these places where alcohol consumption and anxiety are intersecting — if alcohol is disrupting the oxytocin system it might be promoting anxiety. There's evidence to suggest that oxytocin can help treat addicts, and there's also evidence that the oxytocin system can play a role in alcohol abuse and the response to alcohol anxiety.

At this point, very little work has been done to investigate the role of oxytocin in alcohol abuse. Studies have shown that oxytocin can decrease methamphetamine use and relapse in animal models of methamphetamine addiction and that oxytocin makes methamphetamine less rewarding. This may also be true for alcohol, but no one has investigated the link at this point. While we know that oxytocin can decrease anxiety, we don't yet know if it is involved in addiction-related anxiety. These are some of the issues I am investigating.

Q. How is oxytocin related to estrogen?

A: There has been a lot of research on estrogen and anxiety, and the data are confusing. In some lights it looks like estrogen protects against anxiety and in other lights it looks like it might exacerbate anxiety. It might be the case that fluctuating estrogen levels are what lead to anxiety but when you have high estrogen it's protective.

We think that there's a relationship between estrogen and oxytocin functionally because they seem to do a lot of the same things. They are both critical for reproductive, social, and emotional behavior and they overlap in terms of sexual behavior, pregnancy and giving birth.

What we know is that estrogen affects how much oxytocin is able to signal in the body. Estrogen directly affects the production of the oxytocin receptor — the place where oxytocin itself has to bind in order to have any effects in the body. In this way, estrogen governs oxytocin signaling in the brain and body. Beyond that, we don't know much about how estrogen regulates oxytocin.

We release oxytocin when we are stressed, and it is thought this dampens our stress response. I want to understand whether estrogen alters the way that oxytocin functions in the body after something stressful occurs. This will help clarify the roles of both estrogen and oxytocin in stress and anxiety.

Interviewed by Kathryn Kopchik

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