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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00173

Child maltreatment is associated with a reduction of the oxytocin receptor in peripheral blood mononuclear cells

  • 1Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, University of Ulm, Germany
  • 2Institute of Psychology and Education, Abteilung Klinische & Biologische Psychologie, Universität Ulm, Germany
  • 3University of Innsbruck, Institut für Psychologie, Universität Innsbruck, Austria

Background: Child maltreatment (CM) and attachment experiences are closely linked to alterations in the human oxytocin (OXT) system. However, human data about oxytocin receptor (OXTR) protein levels are lacking. Therefore, we investigated oxytocin receptor (OXTR) protein levels in circulating immune cells and related them to circulating levels of OXT in peripheral blood. We hypothesized reduced OXTR protein levels, associated with both, experiences of CM and an insecure attachment representation.
Methods: OXTR protein expressions were analyzed by western blot analyses in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and plasma OXT levels were determined by radioimmunoassay (RIA) in 49 mothers. We used the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) to assess adverse childhood experiences. Attachment representations (secure vs. insecure) were classified using the Adult Attachment Projective Picture System (AAP) and levels of anxiety and depression were assessed with the German version of the Hospital Depression and Anxiety scale (HADS-D).
Results: CM-affected women showed significantly lower OXTR protein expression with significantly negative correlations between the OXTR protein expression and the CTQ sum score, whereas plasma OXT levels showed no significant differences in association with CM. Lower OXTR protein expression in PBMC were particularly pronounced in the group of insecurely attached mothers compared to the securely attached group. Anxiety levels were significantly higher in CM-affected women.
Conclusion: This study demonstrated a significant association between CM and an alteration of OXTR protein expression in human blood cells as a sign for chronic, long-lasting alterations in this attachment-related neurobiological system.

Keywords: Oxytocin, oxytocin receptor, PBMC, child maltreatment, Anxiety, Attachment

Received: 16 Nov 2017; Accepted: 01 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Livio Provenzi, Eugenio Medea (IRCCS), Italy

Reviewed by:

Robert Philibert, University of Iowa, United States
Richard G. Hunter, Rockefeller University, United States  

Copyright: © 2018 Krause, Böck, Gumpp, Rottler, Schury, Karabatsiakis, Buchheim, Gündel, Kolassa and Waller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Sabrina Krause, University of Ulm, Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, Ulm, Germany,