Hormonal contraceptives suppress oxytocin-induced brain reward responses to the partner’s face

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Abstract

The hypothalamic peptide oxytocin (OXT) has been identified as a key modulator of pair-bonding in men, but its effects in women are still elusive. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that hormonal contraception (HC) influences partner preferences and sexual satisfaction, which constitute core domains of OXT function. We thus hypothesized that OXT effects on partner-related behavioral and neural responses could be significantly altered in women using HC. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study involving 40 pair-bonded women, 21 of whom were using HC, we investigated whether a 24-IU nasal dose of OXT would modulate brain reward responses evoked by the romantic partner’s face relative to the faces of familiar and unfamiliar people. Treatment with OXT increased the perceived attractiveness of the partner relative to other men, which was paralleled by elevated responses in reward-associated regions, including the nucleus accumbens. These effects of OXT were absent in women using HC. Our results confirm and extend previous findings in men that OXT interacts with the brain reward system to reinforce partner value representations, indicating a common OXT-dependent mechanism underlying partner attraction in both sexes. This mechanism may be disturbed in women using HC, suggesting that gonadal steroids could alter partner-specific OXT effects.

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