Acute oxytocin improves memory and gaze following in male but not female nursery-reared infant macaques

Elizabeth A. Simpson, Annika Paukner, Valentina Sclafani, Stefano S.K. Kaburu, Stephen J. Suomi, Pier F. Ferrari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

21 Scopus citations

Abstract

Rationale: Exogenous oxytocin administration is widely reported to improve social cognition in human and nonhuman primate adults. Risk factors of impaired social cognition, however, emerge in infancy. Early interventions—when plasticity is greatest—are critical to reverse negative outcomes. Objective: We tested the hypothesis that oxytocin may exert similar positive effects on infant social cognition, as in adults. To test this idea, we assessed the effectiveness of acute, aerosolized oxytocin on two foundational social cognitive skills: working memory (i.e., ability to briefly hold and process information) and social gaze (i.e., tracking the direction of others’ gaze) in 1-month-old nursery-reared macaque monkeys (Macaca mulatta). We did not predict sex differences, but we included sex as a factor in our analyses to test whether our effects would be generalizable across both males and females. Results: In a double-blind, placebo-controlled design, we found that females were more socially skilled at baseline compared to males, and that oxytocin improved working memory and gaze following, but only in males. Conclusions: These sex differences, while unexpected, may be due to interactions with gonadal steroids and may be relevant to sexually dimorphic disorders of social cognition, such as male-biased autism spectrum disorder, for which oxytocin has been proposed as a potential treatment. In sum, we report the first evidence that oxytocin may influence primate infant cognitive abilities. Moreover, these behavioral effects appear sexually dimorphic, highlighting the importance of considering sex differences. Oxytocin effects observed in one sex may not be generalizable to the other sex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)497-506
Number of pages10
JournalPsychopharmacology
Volume234
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

Keywords

  • Cognitive
  • Development
  • Individual differences
  • Infancy
  • Intranasal oxytocin
  • Primate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology

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