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‘Cuddle hormone’ oxytocin may be key to team sports, study finds

Football may have a macho rep, but those brawny huddles before the game could be a sign of the "cuddle hormone" at play.

A growing body of evidence suggests oxytocin, a brain peptide involved in mother-child bonding, may play a key role in competitive sports, The New York Times has reported.

Being part of a team takes empathy, trust, co-operation and the ability to read body language – all of which require elevated levels of the bonding hormone, according to a review of oxytocin in team sports published in September in Scientific World Journal.

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"There is considerable support for the hypothesis that oxytocin plays a role in enhancing team-sport performance," concluded lead author Gert-Jan Pepping, a researcher at the Centre for Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Physical activity itself may cause surges of oxytocin. In a study presented in October at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, male prairie voles that exercised on a running wheel showed increased oxytocin production after six weeks and rapid bonding with new female cage-mates.

Sedentary male prairie voles, on the other hand, didn't bond, let alone flirt, with available females.

Oxytocin is known to flood the body during courtship and orgasm. But the hormone may also play a role in fidelity, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin in Germany and the University of Arizona in the United States gave heterosexual men a sniff of either oxytocin or a placebo. The men were introduced to an attractive woman and asked to stand at a comfortable distance. Men in monogamous relationships stationed themselves 10 to 15 centimetres further away than single men, who positioned themselves at an intimate 55 to 60 centimetres.

The researchers had speculated that oxytocin, associated with trust, would make all the men move closer to the attractive stranger. Instead, they concluded that oxytocin works more subtly than previously thought.

Down the road, if oxytocin is proven to cement relationships and give sports players a competitive edge, pharmaceutical companies will have a field day. A synthetic form of the hormone could become the next performance-enhancing drug – or a true Love Potion Number 9.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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