June 16, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Science And Technology

A doctor's 50-year journey to reveal the hidden power of oxytocin

Dramatic photograph from Dr. Welch's laboratory showing a large number of oxytocin receptors in the intestine of a baby rodent. Before Dr. Welch's discovery, oxytocin was thought to be primarily a brain hormone.

The neurohormone oxytocin is traditionally linked to childbirth. Now, thanks to 50 years of inspiration and effort by a doctor and researcher at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, we know that oxytocin can have a profound influence on inflammation, as well as development and welfare. This journey into the depths of human biology has revealed how oxytocin orchestrates some of the most intimate aspects of our lives, from the bonding between mothers and children to its unexpected roles in physical health. This new research on oxytocin in the gut, combined with Dr. Welch's clinical trials of family interventions, challenges some of the oldest scientific assumptions about behavior. It also opens up exciting new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of babies and children with a wide range of emotional and developmental problems.

“This is the story of my 50-year career in medicine and research, and the people who most influenced and helped me along the way,” says Martha G. Welch, MD, professor of Pediatric Psychiatry and of Pathology and Cell Biology. A detailed retrospective of her clinical and basic research was recently published in the journal Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology. Dr. Welch explains that her research suggests that oxytocin plays a more crucial role than previously thought in establishing and maintaining individuals' physical health and brain function. “Beyond its biological functions within the body, oxytocin is also, fundamentally, a social hormone. “It is commonly known as ‘the love hormone’ because of its lifelong effects on our behavior and social bonds,” Dr. Welch said. Oxytocin has the power, through relationships, to protect against loneliness, both socially and physiologically, and buffers inflammation caused by stress.

Dr. Welch and her team conducted randomized controlled trials over a nine-year period among mothers and premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The trials compared Family Parenting Intervention (FNI) with standard care. FNI aimed to emotionally connect mother and baby before they left the hospital. The trials have shown remarkable results. So far, Dr. Welch and her team have published 17 peer-reviewed articles showing that a relatively small dose of FNI provided in the hospital (an average of 24 hours per week for six weeks) led to significantly improved developmental outcomes. better and a better mother-child relationship. captivity. For example, babies in the FNI group showed lower heart rates and greater brain activity during their NICU stay, while mothers experienced notable relief from depressive symptoms. “FNI infants demonstrated markedly superior neurobehavioral development in both the short and long term, along with autonomous functioning and healthier developmental trajectories. Furthermore, FNI mother-child pairs showed a significantly improved cardiovascular response, which was maintained even during the five-year follow-up period.” Dr. Welch said.

WECS approach and avoidance behaviors and accompanying autonomic physiology.
(Figure attribution: Robert J. Ludwig)

Additionally, Dr. Welch and her team developed the novel Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS), a validated assessment tool that measures parent and infant/child relational emotional behaviors during an orienting reflex test. This tool has proven invaluable in both clinical and research settings, helping healthcare professionals assess and encourage emotional interactions that are vital for healthy development.

Central to Dr. Welch's work is her theory of autonomous coregulation, which challenges conventional brain-centered models of emotion regulation. “When we connect, our bodies engage in a process I call autonomous coregulation. It is a process by which our nervous systems synchronize and calm each other,” explains Dr. Welch. She takes the conventional psychological definition of coregulation, which describes how individuals mutually influence each other's behavior and emotions, a step further by proposing that it operates at a deeper physiological level that has a profound impact on our biology, productivity. , resilience, longevity, and even happiness.

Dr. Welch's research has been instrumental in demonstrating that coregulation and oxytocin can influence a wide range of physiological and behavioral outcomes, from reducing stress responses in infants to improving social behaviors in older children. “Dr. Welch is a brilliant scientist with unique clinical and biological insights, and her research has demonstrated this,” said C. Sue Carter, PhD, distinguished university scientist and Rudy Professor Emerita of Biology at Indiana University. “Dr. . Welch was the first to recognize that calming behaviors between parents and children co-regulated the release of hormones such as oxytocin, with consequences for the body's autonomic nervous system. Remarkably, he used that information to develop novel, rapid and effective parenting interventions to overcome behavioral and developmental disorders.”

Dr. Welch's recent studies and publications continue to attract the attention of the scientific community. For example, Frontiers in Psychology 2023 magazine article titled “Preschool-Based Mother-Child Emotional Preparation Program Improves Emotional Connection and Behavior Regulation at Home and Classroom: A Randomized Controlled Trial” reported a significant five-fold increase in emotional connection between mother-child dyads. at 6 months compared to the control group. peers.

Dr. Welch's research is just beginning to become more recognized, and along with that recognition, Dr. Welch hopes to inspire a new generation of researchers to explore the complex interactions between biology and emotional health. “I hope to inspire young women and men who are beginning their careers in research,” reflects Dr. Welch, highlighting the educational potential of her work.

Dr. Welch's ongoing research promises to further reshape our understanding of human biology and emotional connection, underscoring her role as a pioneering figure in medical science.

Magazine reference

Welch, M. G. (2024). Fantastic journey: chasing oxytocin from bed to bench and back again. Integral Psychoneuroendocrinology, 17, 100213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpnec.2023.100213

About the Author

Martha G. Welch, MD has been a pioneer in the treatment of emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders for nearly 50 years. Decades of clinical observations led her to create a new “autonomic” theory of emotions, which focuses on the primacy of coregulatory processes between parents and children throughout childhood development. Dr. Welch founded The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University Medical Center to conduct basic and clinical research aimed at elucidating the mechanism of parent-child and parent-child co-regulation, which led her to validate her novel theoretical construct of emotional connection. Most recently, she and a team of dedicated colleagues formed the Martha G. Welch Center for Emotional Connection Provide direct help to families struggling with infant and child behavior problems.

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