LEWISTON — Think of oxytocin as the “warm and fuzzy” hormone. It helps with bonding and love. Feeling intimate? Oxytocin is probably involved. 

So, some doctors believe, if a little warm and fuzzy is good, a lot would be better.

A Bates College professor wants to find out whether that’s true.

Nancy Koven, an associate professor of psychology, has received a three-year, nearly $300,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to study oxytocin levels in community members.

If successful, her work could help determine whether it’s possible to have too much of a good hormone.

“Maybe very high levels of oxytocin make you so receptive to people, so sensitive — like it’s a dial and you’re really fine-tuning people to be receptive — that it’s overwhelming,” Koven said. “Can you be so empathic that it hurts?”

Koven’s research could affect the treatment of autism and schizophrenia, two conditions that can make people less sociable and less willing to trust others. In recent years, some doctors have started using oxytocin to treat those conditions, but they haven’t known how much is too much and what too much oxytocin would do.

It may also lead to caution for the general public. Oxytocin sprays and drops can be bought online, where they’re marketed as “liquid trust” and love-life enhancers.

“We need to be a little more cautious about oxytocin as the love hormone. It may not be a love hormone for everyone,” Koven said.

Koven, who has a background in neuropsychiatry, began considering oxytocin research in 2012 when one of her Bates students stumbled upon a mention in scientific literature about people with schizophrenia who were being given oxytocin. Koven was intrigued.

“This was very, very new stuff. I even hadn’t heard of it yet,” she said. “We both thought that was really interesting. We wanted to not study schizophrenia but to   look at young, healthy adults and see what naturally occurring levels of oxytocin were doing with those social features that are impaired in schizophrenia.”

In 2013, Koven studied young, healthy adults who had both high levels of naturally occurring oxytocin and were gifted in emotional intelligence. Scientists would have expected those people, who had an abundance of the love-and-trust hormone and were skilled at reading other people, to be very comfortable in social situations.

Instead, Koven found those people more likely to be socially anxious and aloof. They reported fewer friendships and generally didn’t want to be around other people. 

“That runs counter to everything we had previously thought, that more is better, more is better. In this situation, more was not necessarily so good,” Koven said.

Her latest research will look at 240 Mainers between 20 and 80 years old. The study will include blood and saliva tests for oxytocin, cognition tests and a questionnaire about how the person processes emotions and feels in an average day. 

Koven hopes her research will shed light on what happens to oxytocin as people age and will give scientists a better idea of how the hormone affects older people.

“There might be a limit to how high is good,” Koven said. “But I don’t know if that’s true as we get older. We just have no idea.”

She will also work with the University of New England to validate the use of saliva as a way to measure oxytocin. Currently, scientists rely on blood samples to get oxytocin levels, but Koven believes saliva may be just as reliable and would be more useful in studies. 

“If I were to bring in a bunch of research participants, it’s a lot scarier to tell them I’m going to stick them with a needle,” Koven said. “But if all they have to do is dribble some saliva into a vial, and if I can get my information from saliva, that’s going to open up more research. More researchers are going to do it, more participants may sign up for it.”        

She will draw participants from the area. They will earn $150. 

Koven will spend the next three years on this research. At the end, she hopes to publish her findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. 

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