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.
Improved Social Live, Career
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.
Anatomy of a 'Love 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."
"I think this, in turn, has been turned into a 'trust effect.' After all, who doesn't trust their mother?"
Research in the past several years that looked into the possible connections between the hormone and levels of trust sparked a wave of interest in the clinical community and the public alike.
First, a Swiss study published in the journal Nature in 2005 -- in which Zak was a co-researcher -- suggested that the use of a nasal spray containing the hormone could increase generosity in a game using imaginary money. In another study, published last year in the online Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, Zak and his colleagues found that study subjects receiving the hormone were more generous when asked to split a sum of make-believe money with a stranger.
Other research suggested the hormone might have modest but positive effects in mitigating the repetitive behaviors seen in those with autism.
And animal studies continue to suggest anti-anxiety effects of oxytocin. Larry J. Young, professor in the department of psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, has published many of these animal studies. But while the effects of the hormone when administered to voles, mice and other creatures is quite well known, he notes, "the place it gets a little bit dicey is in humans."
Young says this is because it is simply impossible to experiment on humans in the same way one would experiment on rodents. And the social behaviors of humans -- the ones that everyone is interested in, anyway -- are far too complex to nail down without extensive research.
Seibel, too, urges caution when it comes to interpreting the effects on humans.
"It is very difficult to quantify how much of an effect this actually has," he says.
And while Zak says such excitement over the potential of oxytocin is heartening, there are more ways than a nasal spray to increase the amount of the hormone that courses through one's veins.
"Massage, for example, primes the brain to release oxytocin," he says. "There are many more ways than having a drug to have trust behaviors develop … there are lots of ways to get the brain to release this stuff."
Love Potion Biz Evaporating Online
Still, when studies on oxytocin became common knowledge a few years ago, some companies couldn't resist marketing their versions of trust in a bottle. And many consumers couldn't resist trying it out.
Fast forward to today, and the supposed wonder drug looks more like a formula for disaster. The root of the problem could be the fact that oxytocin is already used as a drug in the medical setting, which makes it the object of scrutiny from federal regulators when marketed for nonmedical purposes.
Companies selling a pharmaceutical -- any drug with an application in a clinical setting -- off label and without permission to sell the drug, could be subject to FDA penalties or sanctions, including forced shutdown.
"We haven't had any product available this year," OxyCalm's Delaney says. "We can't find any contract manufacturers to make any more of it due to potential perceived liabilities."
Delaney says the troubles began when the FDA contacted a seller of the product in Florida about two years ago. Soon, even Internet-based sales of his vanilla-scented version of the oxytocin spray could not be sustained.
But in the year or so that his product was available, Delaney says sales were "decent."
"We sold about 6,000 bottles," he recalls. "We always had a money-back guarantee. Only two to three customers asked for their money back. For one, it was because he didn't like the vanilla scent."
Calls to the Vero Labs, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based makers of Liquid Trust, were far less conclusive. As an automated voice in a distinctively clipped British accent ushers callers through mailbox options, they learn that Liquid Trust is "The world's first and only trust-enhancing spray, specially formulated to increase trust in you."
Messages left at the number were not returned.
Zak says the last time he encountered a representative of Vero Labs, it was on a morning news show on which he and a spokesperson for the company were both guests. Zak says he took this opportunity to point out that the company could face trouble from the FDA for marketing its product in the way it had.
"We really laid into them," he says.
No Magic Bullet for Trust
Could the time come when a shot of oxytocin into the sinuses has therapeutic value? Some experts think it might. But even if such a treatment comes to pass, experts agree that boosting the hormone can only go so far when it comes to treating such complex issues as social anxiety and lingering psychological trauma.
"Social dysfunction and other antisocial behaviors are often very difficult to treat," Zak says. "There is often some trauma in these people's lives; these are hard patients to treat."
Plus, Seibel notes, oxytocin taken without a doctor's guidance can be harmful.
"You might be putting yourself at a significant risk," he says, adding that the drug could lead to miscarriage in pregnant women or heart problems in those predisposed to such conditions.
"I don't think that it's a good idea for the public to go out and get oxytocin on their own," he says. "I don't think there's enough evidence for us to know how powerful an effect this actually has."
So when it comes to Liquid Trust, do people need a dose of liquid skepticism instead? Zak says perhaps.
"There's probably a big placebo effect. ... It's not a crutch for people who are nervous," he notes. "Having said that, our findings are very exciting. Hopefully, people will just get the straight story and not the hype."