"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."
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."