The Role of Oxytocin in Early Life Adversity and Later Psychopathology: a Review of Preclinical and Clinical Studies

A Correction to this article was published on 10 January 2019

This article has been updated



Oxytocin is a peptide hormone integral in parturition and milk let-down, and is increasingly recognized as an important regulator of human social behaviors including bonding, trust, fear, and stress. There is an increasing evidence that oxytocin is intricately involved in a broad array of neurophysiological functions and may be a common system implicated in multiple psychiatric disorders. This review examines the putative role of oxytocin in early life adversity-mediated risk for later development of subtypes of psychiatric conditions. Several lines of evidence are reviewed including oxytocin levels, response to exogenous oxytocin administration, and genetic studies.

Recent findings

To date, most studies report lower levels of peripheral and central oxytocin in a dose-response manner in adults exposed to early life adversity. Individuals exposed to early life adversity seem to have a differential response to exogenous oxytocin administration, sometimes with negative outcomes. Several polymorphisms in the oxytocin receptor and emerging epigenetic studies point to a link between oxytocinergic systems and psychiatric disorders.


Specific limitations of the studies in the field are highlighted, and areas for future research are described. Considerably more research is needed to understand the complex role of the oxytocin system in early life adversity and its consequences.

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Change history

  • 10 January 2019

    The original publication of this article is missing a disclosure statement for Dr. Amalia Londono Tobon.

  • 10 January 2019

    The original publication of this article is missing a disclosure statement for Dr. Amalia Londono Tobon.

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Correspondence to Charles B. Nemeroff MD, PhD.

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Conflict of interest

Dr. Londono Tobon has nothing to disclose.

Dr. Newport has received research support from Eli Lilly, Glaxo SmithKline (GSK), Janssen, National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Takeda Pharmaceuticals, and Wyeth. He has served on speakers’ bureaus and/or received honoraria from Astra-Zeneca, Eli Lilly, GSK, Pfizer, and Wyeth. He has served on advisory boards for GSK, Janssen, and Sage Therapeutics. He has never served as a consultant to any biomedical or pharmaceutical corporations. Neither he nor family members have ever held equity positions in biomedical or pharmaceutical corporations.

Dr. Nemeroff has received research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Stanley Medical Research Institute. He has served on scientific advisory boards for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Bracket (Clintara), Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), Skyland Trail, and Xhale, on the board of directors for AFSP, ADAA, and Gratitude America, and as a consultant (within the last 3 years) to Bracket (Clintara), Fortress Biotech, Intra-Cellular Therapies Inc., Janssen Research & Development LLC, Magstim Inc., Navitor Pharmaceuticals, Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, Taisho Pharmaceutical Inc., Takeda Pharmaceuticals, TC MSO Inc., and Xhale. He has stock holdings with Abbvie, Antares, BI Gen Holdings Inc., Celgene, Corcept Therapeutics Pharmaceuticals Company, OPKO Health Inc., Seattle Genetics, and Xhale. He has received honoraria, royalties, and expert witness fees from various sources. His income sources or equity of $10,000 or more include American Psychiatric Publishing, Bracket (Clintara), CME Outfitters, Intra-Cellular Therapies Inc., Magstim, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, and Xhale. He holds patents for Method and devices for transdermal delivery of lithium (US 6,375,990B1), method of assessing antidepressant drug therapy via transport inhibition of monoamine neurotransmitters by ex vivo assay (US 7,148,027B2), and Compounds, Compositions, Methods of Synthesis, and Methods of Treatment (CRF Receptor Binding Ligand) (US 8,551, 996 B2).

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Mood Disorders

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Londono Tobon, A., Newport, D.J. & Nemeroff, C.B. The Role of Oxytocin in Early Life Adversity and Later Psychopathology: a Review of Preclinical and Clinical Studies. Curr Treat Options Psych 5, 401–415 (2018).

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  • Oxytocin
  • Early life adversity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Parenting