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L'ocytocine: l'hormone de l'empathie et de la bienveillance

Posted on January 7, 2019 at 12:50 AM




L’hormone appelée ocytocine joue un rôle de premier plan dans la sociabilité. Initialement identifiée pour son rôle essentiel dans l’accouchement et la lactation (le terme ocytocine provient d’ailleurs du grec "ökus" pour rapide et "tocine" pour accouchement), des études subséquentes ont montré que l’ocytocine était également relâchée dans le cerveau et influençait plusieurs comportements. Ces études indiquent que l’ocytocine favorise le développement de qualités comme la confiance, la générosité, l’empathie ou encore le sacrifice de soi, tout en atténuant la réponse physiologique au stress et à l’agressivité de façon à rester calme lorsque confronté à une alarme. Il s’agit donc d’une hormone de contact humain, impliquée dans plusieurs phénomènes sociaux comme les relations des mères avec leurs petits ou encore la solidarité ou l’altruisme à l’intérieur d’un groupe.

L’ocytocine est un peptide formé de neuf acides aminés seulement, synthétisé dans les noyaux supra-optiques et paraventriculaires de l’hypothalamus et libéré par la neurohypophyse en réponse à de nombreux stimuli dont l’orgasme, l’accouchement et l’allaitement. Elle a une action bien connue sur la contraction utérine et sur l’émission du lait en réponse à une stimulation des mamelons. En outre, elle est sécrétée en réponse à une augmentation de l’osmolalité sanguine et à une hypovolémie, tout comme l’hormone antidiurétique (vasopressine). Contrairement à cette dernière, l’ocytocine exerce un effet natriurétique et antistress. Selon les biologistes de l’évolution, un précurseur de cette hormone, la vasotocine, serait apparu chez les poissons il y a 100 millions d’années. Chez ces derniers, elle faciliterait la reproduction en diminuant la peur instinctive des femelles d’être approchées pendant l’ovulation. Des études chez l’animal et chez l’homme ont montré que l’ocytocine jouait un rôle dans l’activité sexuelle, l’érection, le comportement maternel, la monogamie, le lien social, le regard, le stress, le bien-être et la confiance. De récentes études ont montré une action bénéfique possible dans le traitement de l’autisme et de la phobie sociale.


Empathie ou dépression, une histoire de gènes ?

Comme toutes les hormones, l’ocytocine doit interagir avec certains récepteurs spécifiques pour provoquer ses effets biologiques. Au cours des dernières années, il a été démontré qu’il existait des variations génétiques dans la structure de ces récepteurs et que ces différences moléculaires étaient en corrélation avec des modifications dans certains comportements sociaux. Les études ont montré qu’une variante du récepteur prédispose à l’empathie, alors qu’une autre semble plutôt être associée à la dépression et à une difficulté à faire face aux difficultés quotidiennes.

Des observations récentes suggèrent que ces variations génétiques peuvent avoir un impact majeur sur les relations avec les personnes de l’entourage. Des chercheurs américains ont demandé à l’un des partenaires de divers couples de discuter ouvertement d’un moment particulièrement difficile de la vie de l'un pendant que les réactions de l’autre étaient filmées. De courts segments de ces vidéos (20 secondes) ont été par la suite présentés sans trame sonore à des observateurs « neutres » afin qu’ils notent leur impression sur la gentillesse et le degré d’empathie du confident seulement à partir de son attitude et de ses expressions faciales.

Les résultats sont étonnants : sans aucune connaissance des individus ou même du contexte de la conversation, les observateurs ont donné les meilleures notes aux personnes qui possédaient une variation du gène du récepteur à l’ocytocine qui prédispose à l’empathie ! Autrement dit, ces observations suggèrent que les impressions favorables que nous avons sur la gentillesse d’une personne dès les premiers instants ne sont pas le fruit du hasard, mais reflètent plutôt une capacité innée que nous avons de détecter une variante génétique qui prédispose effectivement ces personnes à être dignes de confiance.


Monogamie, orgasme, confiance...

L'ocytocine est reconnue comme l'hormone de la monogamie (d'après de récentes études sur les campagnols, petits rats des champs pas toujours fidèles), de l'orgasme, de l'amour maternel et de l'attachement (bonding), de la reconnaissance des visages et de la confiance (en soi et en autrui). L’ocytocine, en plus de son action sur l’allaitement et les contractions utérines, apparaît aujourd'hui comme l’hormone de l’attachement, qui établit les liens protecteurs de la mère avec ses petits. Du point de vue phylogénétique, ces liens, en garantissant la sécurité des petits, favorisent la survie de l’espèce. En outre, l’ocytocine joue un rôle dans les liens sociaux et atténue la phobie sociale. Elle interviendrait dans le sentiment d’appartenance à un groupe et dans la confiance entre les éléments du groupe. Hormone de la confiance, elle augmente l’empathie et la générosité. Du point de vue clinique, les études actuelles sont de durée trop brève pour pouvoir proposer l’ocytocine comme traitement adjuvant dans la phobie sociale ou dans l’autisme, et des études prolongées seraient encore nécessaires avant d’envisager son utilisation comme psychotrope.


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