WINSTON-SALEM, NC – May 24, 2022 – Scientists at Wake Forest University School of Medicine have been awarded approximately $9 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study the use of oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, as a treatment for pain after injury.  

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and is commonly administered to induce labor.

Sometimes called the love hormone, oxytocin also has been shown to have anxiety-reducing and trust-enhancing effects in small studies in rodents and humans, but how it actually works is not understood.

The goal of the five-year grant is to gain a better understanding of potential benefits to improve clinical practice regarding the use of oxytocin as a pain therapeutic and potential disease-modifying agent to prevent the transition from acute to chronic pain. It will be led by Thomas J. Martin, Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology, and James C. Eisenach, M.D., professor of anesthesiology, both at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

“Normally when people have an injury or surgery they experience some level of pain related to it,” Martin said. “For most it goes away but for some it becomes chronic pain.

“The risk of pain becoming chronic after a cesarean is very low, possibly due to the secretion of oxytocin, and is much lower than with other types of abdominal surgery. This suggests that oxytocin may have a protective role to alter the process of chronic pain development after injury or surgery, as well as have the potential to be not just an acute analgesic, but a disease-modifying therapeutic.”

Martin and Eisenach hope to determine how oxytocin prevents the transition from acute to chronic pain in a laboratory and then to determine what the relevant doses are in people.

The next step would be to design a clinical trial with people having types of surgery that frequently result in a high percentage of chronic pain, such as knee or joint replacements.

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