Professor receives $450,000 grant for oxytocin research

Paige Bennett

A Kent State professor received a $450,000 grant for her research on oxytocin and how it may be involved in the brain development of males and females.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development awarded Heather Caldwell, a professor in the department of biological sciences, the grant for a research study entitled “Sex differences in the developing oxytocin system.”

The study will investigate the role oxytocin, a hormone typically associated with social behavior, plays in early brain development, specifically the differences between the female brain and the male brain.

“We have some evidence and some work from other labs that suggest that oxytocin works in early development to help the brain develop along specific tracks toward female brain versus male brain,” Caldwell said.

According to the award abstract, this study will be the first to investigate the function of oxytocin signaling in fetal development and could reveal critical details about its role in organizing brain circuits in males and females.

Interested in the influence of oxytocin on social behavior, Caldwell has been studying the hormone for more than 15 years. Over the last five or six years, however, her research has shifted focus to other roles oxytocin may have in human development.

“The idea is that it may contribute to the neurodevelopment of sex differences in the brain,” Caldwell said.

While the male brain and the female brain share many of the same characteristics, they also have their differences, Caldwell said.

Neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental diseases, such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders, develop differently in males and females. This study could provide important information about the brain development of people with these diseases, Caldwell said.

“If we can perhaps understand some of the underlying neural circuitry and how that might be different in males versus females,” Caldwell said, “it would allow us to understand the normal brain development, as well as a brain that may not have developed normally.”

Understanding the development of healthy brains and diseased brains in both males and females could be useful in medical treatment, Caldwell said, which does not frequently account for sex differences in the brain.

“Lots of times in medicine, lots of male and female things are lumped together from a treatment standpoint,” Caldwell said. “It’s done more on body weight and not by sex.”

Caldwell hopes the study will expand basic understanding of brain circuits across species and assist future research and medical treatment.  

Paige Bennett is the Sciences reporter. Contact her at [email protected].