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Oxytocin: Double active against pain

No. 12 | 04/03/2016 | by Koh

An international study, coordinated by Drs Valery Grinevich (German Cancer Research Center, ZI Mannheim, and CellNetworks, Heidelberg), Ron Stoop (Lausanne University) and Alexandre Charlet (CNRS INCI, Strasbourg), has identified a new analgesia-controlling center within the hypothalamus. The center contains about 30 neurons that coordinate the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream and in the central nervous system, all the way to the spinal cord. Their important results are detailed in an article published in Neuron.

A revolutionary finding for Oxytocin: Both peripheral and central pathways join in a strategic maneuver to conquer pain
© Valery Grinevich, Illustration: Tatiana Glazowa

Oxytocin is a peptide synthesized by the hypothalamus. As a hormone, its release into the blood controls several functions, the most widely known being the contraction of the uterus during birth and the release of maternal milk following birth. Its additional role as a neurotransmitter has been shown by several studies, highlighting oxytocin’s involvement in social communication, development of anxiety, stress response and, recently, pain.

The team of Drs. Valery Grinevich, Ron Stoop and Alexandre Charlet had identified a group of about thirty oxytocinergic neurons that act as taskmasters in order to coordinate the global analgesic effect of oxytocin. These neurons are solicited during episodes of acute pain or inflammatory sensitization. Under these conditions, they first activate a family of magnocellular neurons in the neighboring supraoptic nucleus, thus triggering the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream. This leads to a diffuse analgesic effect by reducing the sensory perception of peripheral neurons that relay nociceptive information. Via long-range axons, these neurons reach the deep layers of the spinal cord and secrete oxytocin precisely at the level where the intensity of the nociceptive message is encoded in the central nervous system. Thus, the release of oxytocin acts via a dual pathway: first, it reduces the perception of pain and second, it filters the nociceptive input into the central nervous system.

The results provide evidence for anatomical and functional heterogeneity within the central oxytocin system and offer a new direction for research of mechanisms of coordinated oxytocin regulation of autonomic functions and behavior. Furthermore, from now on, oxytocin can be seen not only as a potential drug for treatment of social deficits in patients with autisms or schizophrenia, but also as a promising therapeutic agent alleviating acute pain.

An illustration is available at:

Illustration: Tatiana Glazowa, ©Valery Grinevich
Caption: A revolutionary finding for Oxytocin: Both peripheral and central pathways join in a strategic maneuver to conquer pain

Marina Eliava, Meggane Melchior, H. Sophie Knobloch-Bollmann, Jérôme Wahis, Miriam da Silva Gouveia, Yan Tang, Alexandru Cristian Ciobanu, Rodrigo Triana del Rio, Lena C. Roth, Ferdinand Althammer, Virginie Chavant, Yannick Goumon, Tim Gruber, Nathalie Petit-Demoulière, Marta Busnelli, Bice Chini, Linette L. Tan, Mariela Mitre, Robert C. Froemke, Moses V. Chao, Günter Giese, Rolf Sprengel, Rohini Kuner, Pierrick Poisbeau, Peter H. Seeburg, Ron Stoop, Alexandre Charlet, and Valery Grinevich: A new population of parvocellular oxytocin neurons controlling magnocellular neuron activity and inflammatory pain processing. NEURON 2016, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.01.041

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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