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Caveman meddling

MagazineJanuary 1995 (Vol. 5 Issue 10)Caveman meddling

Like most bad decisions in medicine, the latest bit of madness started with an accident

Like most bad decisions in medicine, the latest bit of madness started with an accident. A young Australian woman with a 17 month old baby asked the Key Centre for Women's Health in Victoria, Australia to help her to temporarily breastfeed her nephew

Although the oxytocin did increase her milk supply, the baby remained unsatisfied, and after two days, the woman quit trying. She did report that two hours after she'd been sprayed with the hormone, she experienced intense sexual desire and, after intercourse with her partner, heightened orgasms.

Apparently, the key to this aphrodisiac effect was the progestogen only birth control pill she was taking. Twice afterward, she tried the nose spray, once on the Pill and once after she'd stopped taking it. It only worked when she was on the Pill.

Quickly forgetting the baby, who may never, in the end, have got fed, the Australian researchers realized they were onto a good thing and rushed into print about "hormones and sexual arousal" and oxytocin as a potential aphrodisiac.

The British Medical Journal also devoted an entire exuberant editorial to it (8 October 1994), ominously subtitled "a new chapter in psychopharmacology may be beginning". You could almost see the anticipatory drooling as J Herbert, a reader in neuroendocrinology at the University of Cambridge, exclaimed: "There is a new psychopharmacology waiting, provided we can develop compounds that reach the brain."

Herbert observed that the spray probably only worked as an aphrodisiac while the woman was taking progestogen possibly because this steroid has high level andogenic activity. Androgens are a male hormone. He wonders whether there is some synergy between male hormones and oxytocin in human sexuality.

I have a horrible feeling we're going to find out soon enough. One only has to imagine how this single finding can get quickly distorted into a new medicine, which may soon generate headlines about "new hope for frigid women", and after that, "new hope for marital difficulties" and before long "keep your marriage alive", "keep your woman begging for more" and even "the essential hormone after the menopause". It may not be long before this drug gets thrown in with the usual cocktail of estrogens and progestogens for every woman over 50, or tucked in with the birth control Pill, eventually getting us that much closer to total surrender of our body's hormonal control to modern chemistry.

The cover story this month, linking routine use of this same hormone to start off labour (its other main function) and possible diabetes in offspring, demonstrates how crudely we understand the workings of our ultimately mysterious bodies and what can happen as a result of our ignorant meddling.

It is akin to a caveman being called upon to fix a mainframe computer. Not surprisingly, bashing it with a club won't do the trick.


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