“The Moral Molecule.” “The Cuddle Hormone.” If you’ve been paying attention the past few years, you’ve heard about many of the near-magical effects of the hormone oxytocin on the brain. It makes people more altruistic. It reduces anxiety and increases trust. But it’s not the only chemical that affects the brain that way.

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In an article in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews this week, neuroscientist Ian Mitchell and psychologists Steven Gillespie and Ahmad Abu-Akel sifted through published research studies on the effects of oxytocin on humans and compared the results to published research studies on the effects of alcohol. They found an incredible number of similarities.

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Oxytocin acts on the limbic regions and prefrontal cortex of the brain. It makes stress and anxiety seem less intense, damps down the body’s reaction to fear, increases generosity and bonding among friends, reduces moral maturity, and increases the frequency of aggressive behavior in some people.

Alcohol also acts on the limbic regions and prefrontal cortex of the brain. And it too makes stress and anxiety seem less intense, damps down the body’s reaction to fear, increases generosity and bonding among friends, reduces moral maturity, and increases the frequency of aggressive behavior in some people.

To be fair, there are some differences in how the two molecules affect the brain in social situations. Oxytocin appears to improve people’s ability to recognize happy and sad faces, while alcohol just mucks with their ability to recognize sadness. But the researchers suggest that the two compounds have similar effects on behavior simply because they both act on the same neural circuits inside the brain. Oxytocin and alcohol both inhibit circuits that act as brakes on our behavior, and help release dopamine into our reward circuits. In effect, both make us more likely to try taking some emotional risks, and still feel good about it.

[Source: Mitchell et al. 2015]