For the past few days, Paul Zak's phone has been ringing off the hook.
Normally, this would not be a problem. Zak, a professor of economics and the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., is generally happy to talk about his research, which focuses on the effect of the hormone oxytocin on mood and emotion.
But lately, the phone calls have been less about his research and more about media reports that have elevated the status of the oxytocin nasal spray his team devised to that of a truth serum, a trust drug -- even a love potion.
"I have gotten an enormous number of calls from patients," says Zak, adding that one e-mail he received was from a woman whose social phobia had confined her to her house for the past 10 years. She hoped the oxytocin spray would help her overcome her fear of socializing.
"What do you write back to that kind of message?" Zak says.
The impetus for these calls and e-mails, he says, is his being quoted in a story that ran in the U.K. press. The article sported the provocative headline "Scientists Find Childbirth Wonder Drug That Can 'Cure' Shyness."
"They were very much too hyperbolic," Zak says of the piece. "I think media around the world have started to use the word 'cure.' … This hormone does not cure anything."
But that might not always be the case.
Zak says that more than a dozen studies at his lab, as well as several other projects at other institutions, are taking aim at the hormone with the hope of teasing out therapeutic benefits in the years and decades to come.
But to some Internet marketers, news of the sprayable hormone's development in 2005 already carried the sweet smell of success.
A Google search reveals at least two proprietary formulation nasal sprays containing oxytocin. One spray, OxyCalm, is touted as a relaxation aid that helps users kick the smoking habit. The other, marketed under the name Liquid Trust, purports to improve users' social lives and careers.
Nowadays, however, the "love drug" manufacturers don't seem to be feeling the love. Mike Delaney, a spokesman for OxyCalm, says pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration caused his suppliers to shut down oxytocin production. And a call to the makers of Liquid Trust went quickly to voice mail.
But that hasn't stopped consumers from seeking out what they believe is a miracle emotion potion.
Like certain other hormones, oxytocin is produced naturally in the brain. While oxytocin's reputation as a love potion is relatively new, the hormone has been the subject of study for decades.
In animal studies, researchers have found that the hormone does play a role in social attachments and behavior. And in humans, oxytocin has been detected in elevated levels in the bloodstream during orgasm, childbirth and breast-feeding. Some have suggested that this means the hormone is instrumental in human trust and bonding as well.
Not all about oxytocin is a matter of scientific speculation. Dr. John A. Seibel, past president of the American College of Endocrinology, notes that the hormone is used as a medicine as well.
"It is a medicine that, traditionally, we use to induce labor in women," he says. "But a lot of people feel that besides inducing labor in women, it may also lead up to the nurturing nature of these women toward their children."