Science Fiction Medicine

For those of you not following along, in the current book of The Antithesis Progression, one character is using a hormone cocktail on another as a chemical leash. I’ve gotten some questions about what these weaponized chemicals are supposed to accomplish, how they’re supposed to work, and whether they’re a good choice for the purposes described in the story, so I thought I’d give you guys a peak behind the research curtain.

At the end of Predestination we learned that Joss had dosed Ali with Oxytocin – in Free Will we learned that he’s also giving her Vasopressin. The hormones are described as “weaponized,” but we haven’t gotten a lot of solid details on what that means yet.

Basically, Oxytocin is a hormone which, when acting as a neurotransmitter, increases trust and social risk taking behavior between people, with the most profound effects being felt between strangers and/or people who don’t know each other well (though, of course, some people simply are born insensitive to these effects). Vasopressin is a hormone that, when acting as a neurotransmitter, increases aggression towards non-bonded others (the effects are stronger in men than in women, and in men it also acts as a bonding-reward circuit, an effect which has not been documented in women).

A cocktail of these two hormones, administered across the blood-brain barrier rather than intravenously, will have the dual effect of increasing the formation of groups and loyalty, and of increasing the subject’s suspicion towards those in the outgroup.

These effects are short-term – a single hit of these hormones degrades in a few minutes. In order to have sustained effects one of three things must happen: 1) the body must be fooled into creating its own supply of bonding hormones (through sustained sexual and/or social interaction), 2) memories formed while under the influence of the hormones must be positive and persistent, providing a foundation for later trust-based behavior, 3) a delivery mechanism that will keep the levels of these neurotransmitters at the desired level (this latest is impossible right now, but the success of other time-release and dosage-self-regulating drugs make positing of this for 129 years from now a very safe bet to place on the table, futurism-wise).

It’s also worth noting that these two hormones can be hugely dangerous when used in high doses as drugs. Oxytocin is used to stimulate labor, for example, and Vasopressin is a blood pressure regulator which, in large doses, can keep a heart beating during hemorrhage but has a lot of nasty side-effects in the cardiovascular system under prolonged exposure. However, in the Central Nervous System, acting as neurotransmitters, these hormones have well-documented, profound (but subtle) effects at small doses. These effects are fairly well known in psychiatric circles, and I’m banking on the notion that they will become a staple for psy-ops and con artists when better delivery systems are developed – in the Antithesis universe, this is exactly the case.

The following is a short lecture (29 minute video) from Paul Zak, the founder of the field of neuroeconomics who did the some of the seminal research in this area.

For the super-geeky among you, here are some more papers on research in this area:
How could MDMA (ecstasy) help anxiety disorders? A neurobiological rationale
Brain basis of early parent-infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies.
Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing
Dopaminergic-neuropeptide interactions in the social brain.
Neurotransmitters and peptides: whispered secrets and public announcements.
Opposite effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on the emotional expression of the fear response
Effect of arginine vasopressin and oxytocin on acetylcholine-stimulation of corticosteroid and catecholamine secretion from the rat adrenal gland perfused in situ.

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