Oxytocin is widely known as the ‘love hormone,’ as it is responsible for creating social bonds and triggering the most pleasurable feelings associated with art, exercise, and love. Now researchers have found that it’s not only just a simple hormone and a neurotransmitter, but it actually has the power to heal broken hearts.
An Unexpected Function of Oxytocin
Our heart is the engine of the incredible biological machine we call the “body;” it runs on oxygen that comes from the blood, and it’s responsible for distributing it properly to each cell. But when the heart does not receive enough oxygen, things get complicated and cardiomyocytes perish. This represents a serious problem since cardiomyocytes are the muscle cells responsible for generating the contractions of the heart, which give it its great property to beat and keep us alive.
Not everything is lost, cardiomyocytes can regenerate through a subset of stem cells called epicardium-derived progenitor cells (EpiPC), although this is a type of cell that is difficult to produce in humans. That’s why, when there is any injury to the heart, the muscle resorts to what it has at its disposal, which are dead cells with scar tissue that ultimately leads to heart failure if left untreated.
This led researcher Aitor Aguirre from Michigan State University to wonder if there was any way to induce cardiomyocyte regeneration to restore heart function, and what he discovered was completely unexpected.
Oxytocin Heals Hearts
Aguirre searched the most important part of the body to find a possible solution and found what he was looking for. It was already known that hormones affect cardiac regeneration; estrogen, for example, accelerates regeneration, while cortisol greatly reduces it.
Thanks to this data, Aguirre wondered if the brain produced any hormone release after a heart injury to aid in its regeneration process. He and his team were able to identify 15 possible candidates released after a heart injury, including growth hormone, prolactin, and oxytocin.
With this in mind, Aguirre and his team added each hormone one by one to human EpiPCs to determine if any of them would boost the regeneration of the stem cells. They found that oxytocin had the most potent effect of the 15 possible candidates, increasing the EpiPCs’ ability to reproduce up to three times, compared to untreated cells.
“These results suggest that oxytocin-stimulated EpiPC production is evolutionarily conserved in humans to a significant extent,” Aguirre explains. “Oxytocin is widely used for other reasons, so repurposing it for patients after cardiac damage is not a great stretch of the imagination. Even if heart regeneration is only partial, the benefits to patients could be enormous,” he concluded.
Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera.