Chapter 8. Hormones and Sex
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
Susan Milius For widemouthed, musical midshipman fish, melatonin is not a sleep hormone — it’s a serenade starter. In breeding season, male plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) spend their nights singing — if that’s the word for hours of sustained foghorn hums. Males dig trysting nests under rocks along much of North America’s Pacific coast, then await females drawn in by the crooning. New lab tests show that melatonin, familiar to humans as a possible sleep aid, is a serenade “go” signal, says behavioral neurobiologist Ni Feng of Yale University. From fish to folks, nighttime release of melatonin helps coordinate bodily timekeeping and orchestrate after-dark biology. The fish courtship chorus, however, is the first example of the hormone prompting a launch into song, according to Andrew Bass of Cornell University. And what remarkable vocalizing it is. The plainfin midshipman male creates a steady “mmm” by quick-twitching specialized muscles around its air-filled swim bladder up to 100 times per second in chilly water. A fish can extend a single hum for about two hours, Feng and Bass report October 10 in Current Biology. That same kind of super-fast muscle shakes rattle-snake tails and trills vocal structures in songbirds and bats. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Christian Jarrett It’s been said that men and women are so unlike each other, it’s as if they’re from different planets – a claim that continues to amuse and irritate. John Gray’s original mega-selling book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, first published in the early 1990s, has sold millions, spawning numerous parodies (such as Katherine Black and Finn Contini’s Women May Be from Venus, But Men are Really from Uranus) and even comedy stage shows, such as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Live! currently playing off Broadway.) While our physical differences in size and anatomy are obvious, the question of psychological differences between the genders is a lot more complicated and controversial. There are issues around how to reliably measure the differences. And when psychologists find them, there are usually arguments over whether the causes are innate and biological, or social and cultural. Are men and women born different or does society shape them that way? These questions are particularly thorny when you consider our differences in personality. Most research suggests that men and women really do differ on some important traits. But are these differences the result of biology or cultural pressures? And just how meaningful are they in the real world? One possibility is that most differences are tiny in size but that combined they can have important consequences. One of the most influential studies in the field, published in 2001 by pioneering personality researchers Paul Costa, Robert McCrae and Antonio Terracciano, involved over 23,000 men and women from 26 cultures filling out personality questionnaires. © 2016 BBC.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22746 - Posted: 10.12.2016
By Andy Coghlan More men inevitably means more testosterone-fuelled violence, right? Wrong, according to a comprehensive analysis exploring how a surplus of men or women affect crime rates across the US. In areas where men outnumber women, there were lower rates of murders and assaults as well as fewer sex-related crimes, such as rapes, sex offences and prostitution. Conversely, higher rates of these crimes occurred in areas where there were more women than men. Ryan Schacht of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and his colleagues analysed sex ratio data from all 3082 US counties, provided by the US Census Bureau in 2010. They compared this with crime data for the same year, issued by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. They only included information about women and men of reproductive age. For all five types of offence analysed, rising proportions of men in a county correlated with fewer crimes– even when accounting for other potential contributing factors such as poverty. The results suggest that current policies aimed at defusing violence and crime by reducing the amount of men in male-dominated areas may backfire. According to Schacht, when women are in short supply, men must be more dutiful to win and retain a partner. With an abundance of women, men are spoilt for choice and adopt more promiscuous behaviour that brings them into conflict with other men, and more likely to commit sex-related offences. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR Hormonal contraceptives are associated with an increased risk for depression, a large study has found. Danish researchers studied more than a million women ages 15 to 34, tracking their contraceptive and antidepressant use from 2000 to 2013. The study excluded women who before 2000 had used antidepressants or had another psychiatric diagnosis. Over all, compared with nonusers, users of hormonal contraception had an 80 percent increased risk of depression. Some types of contraceptives carried even greater risk. Women who used progestin-only pills more than doubled their risk, for example, while those who used those who used the levonorgestrel IUD (brand name Mirena) tripled their risk. The risk persisted after adjusting for age, age of first intercourse, educational level and other factors. The study, in JAMA Psychiatry, also found that the risk was greater in adolescent girls, but this may be because adolescent girls are especially susceptible to depression. “Even though the risk of depression increases substantially with these drugs — an 80 percent increase is not trivial — most women who use them will not get depressed,” said the senior author, Dr. Oejvind Lidegaard, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Copenhagen. “Still, it is important that we tell women that there is this possibility. And there are effective nonhormonal methods of birth control.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Susan Milius ORLANDO, Fla. — When sex chromosomes among common pill bugs go bad from disuse, borrowed bacterial DNA comes to the rescue. Certain pill bugs grow up female because of sex chromosomes cobbled together with genes that jumped from the bacteria. Genetic analysis traces this female-maker DNA to Wolbachia bacteria, Richard Cordaux, based at the University of Poitiers with France’s scientific research center CNRS, announced September 29 at the International Congress of Entomology. Various kinds of Wolbachia infect many arthropods, spreading from mother to offspring and often biasing their hosts’ sex ratios toward females (and thus creating even more female offspring). In the common pill bug (Armadillidium vulgare), Wolbachia can favor female development two ways. Just by bacterial infection without any gene transfer, bacteria passed down to eggs can make genetic males develop into functional females. Generations of Wolbachia infections determining sex let these pill bugs’ now-obsolete female-making genes degenerate. Which makes it very strange that certain populations of pill bugs with no current Wolbachia infection still produce abundant females. That’s where Cordaux and Poitier colleague Clément Gilbert have demonstrated a second way that Wolbachia makes lady pill bugs — by donating DNA directly to the pill bug genes. The researchers, who share an interest in sex determination, have built a case that Wolbachia inserted feminizing genes into pill bug chromosomes. The bacterial genes thus created a new sex chromosome. 5|© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22717 - Posted: 10.02.2016
Mia Persson Dogs may look to humans for help in solving impossible tasks thanks to some genes previously linked to social disorders in people. Beagles with particular variants in a gene associated with autism were more likely to sidle up to and make physical contact with a human stranger, researchers report September 29 in Scientific Reports. That gene, SEZ6L, is one of five genes in a particular stretch of beagle DNA associated with sociability in the dogs, animal behaviorist Per Jensen and colleagues at Linköping University in Sweden say. Versions of four of those five genes have been linked to human social disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and aggression. “What we figure has been going on here is that there are genetic variants that tend to make dogs more sociable and these variants have been selected during domestication,” Jensen says. But other researchers say the results are preliminary and need to be confirmed by looking at other dog breeds. Previous genetic studies of dog domestication have not implicated these genes. But, says evolutionary geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University, genes that influence sociability are “not an unlikely target for domestication — as humans, we would be most interested in a protodog that was interested in spending time with humans.” |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
By Jessica Boddy Activity trackers like Fitbits and Jawbones help fitness enthusiasts log the calories they burn, their heart rates, and even how many flights of stairs they climb in a day. Biologist Cory Williams of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff is using similar technology to track the energy consumption of arctic ground squirrels in Alaska—insight that may reveal how the animals efficiently forage for food while avoiding being picked off by golden eagles. This week, Williams published a study in Royal Society Open Science that compared the activity levels of male and female squirrels. He found that although males spend a lot more time outside of their burrows, they’re pretty lazy, and sometimes just bask in the sun during warmer months. Females, on the other hand, have limited time to spare when caring for their young, and use it to run around and forage for themselves and their babies. In addition to previous work on arctic ground squirrel hibernation and seasonal differences in behavior, the finding is helping his team figure out why males tend to be more susceptible to being eaten. Williams sat down with Science to talk about creating a squirrel Fitbit, catching the animals in the wild, and how technology is improving ecological research. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Q: What got you interested in studying arctic ground squirrels? A: It’s one of the only arctic animals that keeps a rigid schedule even when there’s no light/dark cycle for 6 week—meaning, they emerge from and return to their burrows the same time every day and they eat the same time each day, even though the sun stays in the sky for weeks and weeks. So I started to deploy the energy tracking technologies to better understand how the squirrels use energy through the seasons. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22714 - Posted: 09.30.2016
By Clare Wilson IT HAS been blamed for brain shrinkage, impotence, divorce and paedophilia – and in April this year, Utah declared it a public health hazard. Warnings about pornography come not just from religious or conservative groups – former Playboy model and actor Pamela Anderson also recently cautioned against its “corrosive effects”. Yet survey after survey shows porn use is common among men and not exactly rare in women, so can it really be so dangerous? Or could it even have benefits? While there is research into the effects of porn, a great deal of it is contradictory. Even the same studies are interpreted differently by those on opposite sides of the debate. Some feel it is a menace to society, while others think that attitude belongs with 1980s hysteria over video nasties. Anti-porn campaigners chiefly argue that it is addictive and hijacks the brain’s normal reward pathways. Like heroin addicts who crave more of their drug to get the same high, users find they are no longer aroused by real sex and resort to increasingly harder-core material, or so the theory goes. Of course, there are other concerns over pornography, such as its depictions of violence, exploitation and sexual consent. But male addiction is an increasing focus of anti-porn campaigns. Campaigners say that an excess of porn prompts users to spurn their partners and seek out images of bestiality, rape scenes, and child abuse. Some schools in Scotland now warn that viewing adult images leads to impotence, coercion and abuse. “This kind of escalation is described over and over again,” says Gary Wilson, a retired biology lecturer and author of website and book Your Brain on Porn. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22706 - Posted: 09.29.2016
By Karl Gruber Five lionesses in Botswana have grown a mane and are showing male-like behaviours. One is even roaring and mounting other females. Male lions are distinguished by their mane, which they use to attract females, and they roar to protect their territory or call upon members of their pride. Females lack a mane and are not as vocal. . New Scientist Live: Book tickets to our festival of ideas and discovery – 22 to 25 September in London But sometimes lionesses grow a mane and even behave a bit like males. However, until now, reports of such maned lionesses have been extremely rare and largely anecdotal. We knew they existed, but little about how they behave. Now, Geoffrey D. Gilfillan at the University of Sussex in Falmer, UK, and colleagues have reported five lionesses sporting a mane at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango delta. Gilfillan started studying these lionesses back in March 2014, and for the next two years he focused on recording the behaviour of one of them, called SaF05. She had an underdeveloped mane and was larger than most females. “While SaF05 is mostly female in her behaviour – staying with the pride, mating males – she also has some male behaviours, such as increased scent-marking and roaring, as well as mounting other females,” says Gilfillan. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Mallory Locklear Men and women show different patterns of drug abuse, with women becoming addicted to some substances much more quickly. Now a study in rats has found that sex hormones can reduce opioid abuse. From studies of other drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol, we know that women are less likely to use these substances than men, but become addicted faster when they do. “There are a lot of data to indicate that women transition from that initial use to having a substance-use disorder much more rapidly,” says Mark Smith, a psychologist at Davidson College, North Carolina. Once addicted, women also seem to have stronger drug cravings. Tracking drug use throughout women’s menstrual cycles suggests that both these differences could be shaped by hormones – with more intense cravings and greater euphoria at particular times in the cycle, says Smith. Craving crash Now Smith’s team has investigated the effects of hormones on opioid addiction in rats. Their findings suggest that hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone may help women to kick the habit. The researchers allowed female rats to self-administer heroin, and measured how much they chose to take at different times in their oestrous cycle – a regular sequence of hormone fluctuations similar to those seen in the menstrual cycle in women. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Colin Barras It is not just about speed. The only songbird known to perform a rapid tap dance during courtship makes more noise with its feet during its routines than at other times. The blue-capped cordon-bleu (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus) from East Africa is blessed with the attributes of a Broadway star: striking good looks, a strong singing voice – and fine tap-dancing skills. The dances are so fast that they went unnoticed until 2015, when Masayo Soma at Hokkaido University in Japan and her colleagues captured the performances on high-speed film. The bird’s speciality is a left-right-left shuffle – only with the feet striking the perch up to 50 times a second. The vision of some birds operates at a faster rate than that of humans, so the cordon-bleu’s dance may simply be about creating an impressive visual performance. But it could also be about winning over a potential mate with rhythm. To explore the idea, Soma and her colleagues recorded audio of the courtship dances, which both males and females perform. They found that the tap dances are unusually loud: the feet strike the branch with enough force to generate sound averaging 30 decibels. This typically drops to just 20 decibels when a bird’s feet strike the branch as it hops around when it is not performing, which means the step sounds are not just a by-product of movement. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22665 - Posted: 09.19.2016
Carrie Arnold Could a protein that originated in a virus explain why men are more muscular than women? Viruses are notorious for their ability to cause disease, but they also shape human biology in less obvious ways. Retroviruses, which insert their genetic material into our genomes to copy themselves, have left behind genes that help to steer our immune systems and mold the development of embryos and the placenta. Now researchers report in PLOS Genetics that syncytin, a viral protein that enables placenta formation, also helps to increase muscle mass in male mice1. These results could partially explain a lingering mystery in biology: why the males of many mammalian species tend to be more muscular than females. “As soon as I read it, my mind started racing with the potential implications,” says evolutionary virologist Aris Katzourakis of the University of Oxford, UK. About 8% of the 3 billion pairs of As, Ts, Gs and Cs that make up our DNA are viral detritus. Many of those viral hand-me-downs have degraded into useless junk — but not all, as a series of discoveries over the past 15 years has revealed. In 2000, scientists discovered that syncytin, a protein that enables the formation of the placenta, actually originated as a viral protein that humans subsequently ‘borrowed’2. That original viral protein enables the retrovirus to fuse with host cells, depositing its entire genome into the safe harbour of the cytoplasm. Syncytin has changed little from this ancestral protein form; it directs certain placental cells to fuse with cells in the mother’s uterus, forming the outer layer of the placenta. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited
By NATALIE ANGIER The female bonobo apes of the Wamba forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo had just finished breakfast and were preparing for a brief nap in the treetops, bending and crisscrossing leafy branches into comfortable day beds. But one of the females was in estrus, her rump exceptionally pink and swollen, and four males in the group were too excited to sleep. They took turns wildly swinging and jumping around the fertile female and her bunkmates, shaking the branches, appearing to display their erections and perforating the air with high-pitched screams and hoots. Suddenly, three older, high-ranking female bonobos bolted up from below, a furious blur of black fur and swinging limbs and, together with the female in estrus, flew straight for the offending males. The males scattered. The females pursued them. Tree boughs bounced and cracked. Screams on all sides grew deafening. Three of the males escaped, but the females cornered and grabbed the fourth one — the resident alpha male. He was healthy, muscular and about 18 pounds heavier than any of his captors. But no matter. The females bit into him as he howled and struggled to pull free. Finally, “he dropped from the tree and ran away, and he didn’t appear again for about three weeks,” said Nahoko Tokuyama, of the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, who witnessed the encounter. When the male returned, he kept to himself. Dr. Tokuyama noticed that the tip of one of his toes was gone. “Being hated by females,” she said in an email interview, “is a big matter for male bonobos.” The toe-trimming incident was extreme but not unique. Describing results from their long-term field work in the September issue of Animal Behaviour, Dr. Tokuyama and her colleague Takeshi Furuichi reported that the female bonobos of Wamba often banded together to fend off male aggression, and in patterns that defied the standard primate rule book. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Jesse Singal Back in 2014, a bigoted African leader put J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern, in a strange position. Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, had been issuing a series of anti-gay tirades, and — partially fueled by anti-gay religious figures from the U.S. — was considering toughening Uganda’s anti-gay laws. The rhetoric was getting out of control: “The commercialisation of homosexuality is unacceptable,” said Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s ethics minister. “If they were doing it in their own rooms we wouldn’t mind, but when they go for children, that’s not fair. They are beasts of the forest.” Eventually, Museveni said he would table the idea of new legislation until he better understood the science of homosexuality, and agreed to lay off Uganda’s LGBT population if someone could prove to him homosexuality was innate. That’s where Bailey comes in: He’s a leading sex researcher who has published at length on the question of where sexual orientation comes from. LGBT advocates began reaching out to him to explain the science of homosexuality and, presumably, denounce Museveni for his hateful rhetoric. But “I had issues with rushing out a scientific statement that homosexuality is innate,” he said in an email, because he’s not sure that’s quite accurate. While he did write articles, such as an editorial in New Scientist, explaining why he thought Museveni’s position didn’t make sense, he stopped short of calling homosexuality innate. He also realized that in light of some recent advances in the science of sexual orientation, it was time to publish an article summing up the current state of the field — gathering together all that was broadly agreed-upon about the nature and potential origins of sexual orientation. (In the meantime, Museveni did end up signing the anti-gay legislation, justifying his decision by reasoning that homosexuality “was learned and could be unlearned.”) © 2016, New York Media LLC.
By LISA SANDERS, M.D. On Thursday, we challenged Well readers to take on the complicated case of a 50-year-old woman who felt feverish and couldn’t stop vomiting and who ended up losing a lot of weight. Like the doctors who saw her as she searched for a diagnosis, many of you focused on her recent journey to Kenya as the source of her symptoms. It was a completely reasonable approach, and one that was extensively explored by the doctors who cared for her. But ultimately it was incorrect. This was a really tough case. Indeed, only three of you got it right. The correct diagnosis was: Hyperthyroidism Thyroid hormone controls metabolism. The more of this hormone flowing in the body, the harder the body works. Because this hormone plays such an important role in how we function, the body tightly regulates how much of it is released and when. But just like every other system in the body, that regulatory mechanism can mess up, releasing either too little hormone (hypothyroidism) or, as in this case, too much. The usual symptoms of hyperthyroidism are pretty apparent: The heart races; patients are sweaty, shaky, itchy and sometimes feverish. The appetite increases, but because the entire body is revved up, there is often weight loss. Bowel movements become more frequent and sleep harder to come by. Frequent and uncontrolled vomiting is less common but has been reported. This patient had all of these symptoms. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune disorder known as Graves’ disease, named after Dr. Robert Graves, a 19th-century Irish physician who wrote about the phenomenon of rapid and violent palpitations associated with an enlarged thyroid gland. In the 20th century it was discovered that the symptoms result when antibodies, the foot soldiers of the immune system, cause excess stimulation of the thyroid gland, resulting in the uncontrolled production and release of thyroid hormone. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 22624 - Posted: 09.03.2016
By Simon Oxenham It can seem like barely a week goes by without a new study linking the stage in a woman’s monthly cycle to her preferences in a sexual partner. Reportedly, when women are ovulating they are attracted to men who are healthier, more dominant, more masculine, have higher testosterone levels– the list goes on. But do women really exhibit such behavioural changes – and why are we so fascinated by the idea that they do? A popular theory in evolutionary psychology is that women seek out men with better genes while they are ovulating to have short term affairs with, so as to produce healthier babies. These men may not necessarily stick around for the long haul, but appear particularly attractive when a woman is in the fertile stage of her cycle. During the non-fertile phase, the theory goes that women seek out men who are more likely to make reliable long-term partners and good fathers. But something smells a bit fishy here. Are women really evolutionarily hard-wired to cuckold their partners? Or might the attraction of a salacious hypothesis – with slightly sexist overtones – be shaping some of this research? Masculine all month A review of these kinds of studies is now challenging this often-told story. Wendy Wood at the University of Southern California and her team have analysed 58 studies – some of which were never published – and found that this theory is largely unsupported by evidence. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Christie Aschwanden The Olympic stadium was quiet on Wednesday morning, and spectators in the sparsely filled stands seemed to pay little notice to South African runner Caster Semenya as she cruised to an easy win in her first-round heat of the 800 meters. But on Saturday evening, when Semenya will contest the 800-meter final, she’ll have the world’s eyes on her. “There is no more certain gold medal in the Rio Olympics than Semenya,” wrote Ross Tucker, an exercise scientist in South Africa, on his blog, The Science of Sport. “She could trip and fall, anywhere in the first lap, lose 20m, and still win the race.” If she does indeed dominate, some sports fans will be cheering Semenya, while others will be less inclined to celebrate, believing that she has an unfair advantage over her rivals. Semenya made headlines in 2009 amid rumors that track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, had required her to undergo tests to confirm that she was female. Media accounts have reported that she has hyperandrogenism, a condition that causes higher-than-average testosterone levels — an allegation that neither Semenya nor the IAAF has publicly confirmed. Semenya’s case is the latest saga in sport’s checkered history of sex testing, a task that is purportedly aimed at creating an even playing field but — as I’ve discussed previously — raises serious questions about how athletics organizations treat women. Her muscular build, deep voice and remarkable results had raised suspicions among some of Semenya’s rivals about whether she was really a woman. “Just look at her,” said Mariya Savinova, a Russian runner now tangled in her country’s doping scandal.
By Melinda Wenner Moyer The science of sleep is woefully incomplete, not least because research on the topic has long ignored half of the population. For decades, sleep studies mostly enrolled men. Now, as sleep researchers are making a more concerted effort to study women, they are uncovering important differences between the sexes. Hormones are a major factor. Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone can influence the chemical systems in the brain that regulate sleep and arousal. Moreover, recent studies indicate that during times of hormonal change—such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause—women are at an increased risk for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and insomnia. Women also tend to report that they have more trouble sleeping before and during their menstrual periods. And when women do sleep poorly, they may have a harder time focusing than sleep-deprived men do. In one recent study, researchers shifted the sleep-wake cycles of 16 men and 18 women for 10 days. Volunteers were put on a 28-hour daily cycle involving nearly 19 hours of awake time followed by a little more than nine hours of sleep. During the sleep-shifted period, the women in the group performed much less accurately than the men on cognitive tests. The findings, published in April of this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, may help explain why women are more likely than men to get injured working graveyard shifts. In addition, a study conducted in 2015 in teenagers reported that weekday sleep deprivation affects cognitive ability more in girls than in boys. © 2016 Scientific American
by Helen Thompson Some guys really know how to kill a moment. Among Mediterranean fish called ocellated wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), single males sneak up on mating pairs in their nest and release a flood of sperm in an effort to fertilize some of the female’s eggs. But female fish may safeguard against such skullduggery through their ovarian fluid, gooey film that covers fish eggs. Suzanne Alonzo, a biologist at Yale University, and her colleagues exposed sperm from both types of males to ovarian fluid from female ocellated wrasse in the lab. Nesting males release speedier sperm in lower numbers (about a million per spawn), while sneaking males release a lot of slower sperm (about four million per spawn). Experiments showed that ovarian fluid enhanced sperm velocity and motility and favored speed over volume. Thus, the fluid gives a female’s chosen mate an edge in the race to the egg, the researchers report August 16 in Nature Communications. While methods to thwart unwanted sperm are common in species that fertilize within the body, evidence from Chinook salmon previously hinted that external fertilizers don’t have that luxury. However, these new results suggest otherwise: Some female fish retain a level of control over who fathers their offspring even after laying their eggs. Male ocellated wrasse come in three varieties: sneaky males (shown) that surprise mating pairs with sperm but don’t help raise offspring; nesting males that build algae nests and court females; and satellite males, which protect nests from sneakers but staying out of parenting. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Robert Lavine Just the briefest eye contact can heighten empathetic feelings, giving people a sense of being drawn together. But patients who suffer from autism, even in its most high-functioning forms, often have trouble establishing this sort of a social connection with other people. Researchers are delving into what’s going on behind the eyes when these magical moments occur, and the hormones and neural substrates involved may offer hope of helping people with autism. University of Cambridge neuroscientist Bonnie Auyeung and colleagues gave oxytocin—a compound commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” as it’s been found to play roles in maternal and romantic bonding—to both normal men and those with a high-functioning form of autism also called Asperger’s syndrome. The scientists then tracked the eye movements of the study subjects and found that, compared with controls, those who received oxytocin via nasal spray showed increases in the number of fixations—pauses of about 300 milliseconds—on the eye region of an interviewer’s face and in the fraction of time spent looking at this region during a brief interview (Translational Psychiatry, doi:10.1038/tp.2014.146, 2015). Oxytocin, a neuropeptide hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, has long been known to activate receptors in the uterus and mammary glands, facilitating labor and milk letdown. But research on the neural effects of oxytocin has been accelerated by the availability of a nasal spray formulation of the hormone, which can deliver it more directly to the brain, also rich with oxytocin receptors. Auyeung adds that her study used a unique experimental setup. “Other studies have shown that [oxytocin] increases looking at the eye region when presented with a picture of a face,” Auyeung says. “The new part is that we are using a live interaction.”