Positive social interactions in a lifespan perspective with a focus on opioidergic and oxytocinergic systems: Implications for neuroprotection

Valentina Colonnello, Nicola Petrocchi, Marina Farinelli, Cristina Ottaviani

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In recent years, a growing interest has emerged in the beneficial effects of positive social interactions on health. The present work aims to review animal and human studies linking social interactions and health throughout the lifespan, with a focus on current knowledge of the possible mediating role of opioids and oxytocin. During the prenatal period, a positive social environment contributes to regulating maternal stress response and protecting the fetus from exposure to maternal active glucocorticoids. Throughout development, positive social contact with the caregiver acts as a “hidden regulator” and promotes infant neuroaffective development. Postnatal social neuroprotection interventions involving caregiver–infant physical contact seem to be crucial important for rescuing preterm infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders. Attachment figures and friendships in adulthood continue to have a protective role for health and brain functioning, counteracting brain aging. In humans, implementation of meditative practices that promote compassionate motivation and prosocial behavior appears beneficial for health in adolescents and adults. Human and animal studies suggest the oxytocinergic and opioidergic systems are important mediators of the effects of positive social interactions. However, most of the studies focus on a specific phase of life (i.e., adulthood). Future studies should focus on the role of opioids and oxytocin in positive social interactions adopting a lifespan perspective.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCurrent Neuropharmacology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Jun 3 2016


  • Compassion
  • Development
  • Neuropeptides
  • Opioid
  • Oxytocin
  • Social bond
  • Social interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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