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what is the “love hormone” discovered by researchers

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the brain, especially the hypothalamus, and released into the blood. It is often touted as a “love hormone” or “love drug” and according to researchers, it is the cure for a broken heart.

Oxytocin is the hormone that helps us in interpersonal relationships, generating feelings of happiness. But this hormone is also capable of healing hearts after a heart attack, as concluded a study using zebrafish and human cells.

In addition to inducing positive feelings, oxytocin actually has other functions: this hormone can cause contractions in the uterus and help regulate lactation, testosterone production, sperm transport, and ejaculation. Now, a study using zebrafish and human cell cultures has discovered another potential function of the “love hormone,” that it may be able to promote heart regeneration after a stroke.

The heart is made up of layers, including the outer layer, the epicardium, and the middle layer, the myocardium. During a heart attack, cardiomyocytes, the highly specialized cells responsible for the heart’s contractions, die. This can be a problem because they cannot be filled.

However, some studies have shown that a subset of cells in the outer layer of the heart can undergo reprogramming to become stem cells called Epicard-derived Progenitor Cells (EpiPCs). This is important because EpiPCs can regenerate into different cell types of the heart, including cardiomyocytes.

Under natural conditions, EpiPC production is normally ineffective for heart regeneration in humans, so other mechanisms must be developed. The researchers used zebrafish to explore the role of oxytocin because these model organisms can regenerate their heart when a quarter has been lost, typically through the proliferation of cardiomyocytes and EpiPCs.

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Oxytocin could be the medicine that heals a broken heart

The scientists tried to answer this question by freezing the zebrafish heart and found that the expression of oxytocin messenger RNA in the brain increased 20-fold. Oxytocin then travels to the outer layers of the zebrafish heart and binds to the oxytocin receptor, which in turn triggers a molecular cascade in which local cells end up expanding and developing into EpiPCs. These EpiPCs then migrate to the middle layer of the heart to develop into cardiomyocytes.

“Here we show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide also known as the love hormone, is able to activate heart repair mechanisms in injured hearts in zebrafish and human cell cultures, opening up potential new therapies for heart regeneration in humans.” said the lead author. Dr. Aitor Aguirre in a statement.

The research team went on to examine human tissue in vitro. They tested 15 different neurohormones and found that only oxytocin stimulated cultures of induced pluripotent stem cells (hIPSCs) to become EpiPCs. This stimulation occurred at twice the basal rate and was, in fact, much stronger than any other molecules known to stimulate EpiPC production in mice.

When the oxytocin receptor was knocked out, EpiPCs were not activated to regenerate in culture. The team also showed that there was a link between EpiPC stimulation and oxytocin in a pathway known to regulate cell migration, growth and differentiation.

“These results show that oxytocin’s stimulation of EpiPC production is likely to be evolutionarily conserved in humans to a significant extent. Oxytocin is widely used in the clinic for other reasons. Even if the heart’s regeneration is only partial, the benefits for patients could be enormous,” added Aguirre.

Next, scientists need to look at the effect of oxytocin in humans after heart damage occurs. Oxytocin itself is short-lived in circulation, so its effects in humans could be hindered by this. The study was published in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology.

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