Extra funding for Impact Circle project aimed at understanding the role of oxytocin and aging

Oxytocin is well-known as the mammalian “love hormone” – it’s a signaling neuropeptide that plays a critical role in maternal bonding and lactation, socialrecognition, pain sensation, energy metabolism and mood disorders, among others. Oxytocin may also impact aging, but how it might do so is not clear. That could change – thanks to the Impact Circle’s enthusiasm for a collaborative project between Buck faculty Dr. Jennifer Garrison and Dr. Birgit Schilling, who directs the Buck’s Chemistry and Mass Spectrometry Core.


Eric Verdin, MD, the Buck’s President and CEO, decided to invest $80,000 in the project, which came in second place when the Impact Circle voted on which project they wanted to support. “This work has great potential to crack open the ‘black box’ of how neuropeptides, including oxytocin, function in normal and aging brains,” said Verdin. “It was too important not to fund and I also wanted to acknowledge the Impact Circle’s enthusiasm for Jennifer and Birgit’s proposal.”


The challenge of measuring oxytocin

The seed of the project was planted when the Garrison lab discovered that oxytocin signaling regulates both longevity and stress resistance in the nematode worm C. elegans. Given that worms and humans have much in common when it comes to the biology of aging and the functional architecture of the nervous system, the work is primed to move to the next step – which would be to test the findings in mammals.

A critical barrier to studying oxytocin in mammals is the challenge to measure it accurately.  There are numerous conflicting reports regarding whether plasma levels of oxytocin change with age in both humans and rodents. Problems with selectivity, sensitivity and unreliable methods for measuring oxytocin have yielded results which vary as much a 1000-fold in both directions.  Clearly, accurate quantification of oxytocin is essential to answering questions about the function of oxytocin and the value in manipulating its levels as an approach to addressing age-related decline.  

This is where Dr. Birgit Schilling comes in. She’s an expert in mass spectrometry, a highly analytical technique that, in its simplest terms, breaks molecules in a mixture into pieces - and then looks at the mass of the fragments to determine how much of a particular molecule is present in the sample. She and Dr. Garrison are developing a method that will yield more accurate and reliable measurements of peripheral oxytocin levels in biological samples, including worm tissue and human plasma. The $80,000 funding will provide seed money to generate crucial data that will form the basis for a larger federal grant.

 “We are excited to bring clarity to the current confusion surrounding the levels of oxytocin in the literature,” says Dr. Schilling. “Importantly, we also think our work can shorten the time and expense involved in evaluating targets for their effect on healthspan and lifespan in mammalian systems.” 

A project with far-ranging possibilities 

Dr. Garrison has been studying the effects of neuropeptides for years. She likens them to the brain’s wi-fi because they facilitate long-distance communication between neurons. The opportunity to move her work involving oxytocin into mammalian aging is particularly gratifying. “Our findings raise the possibility that modulating oxytocin signaling might be a strategy to extend human healthspan,” she said. “We think that doing so might elicit fewer side effects than current anti-aging targets.”  Dr. Garrison adds that the project’s contribution to science will likely extend beyond oxytocin. The methods she and Dr. Schilling are developing can be applied to the measurement of other molecules with important roles in biology and disease.  

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