Oxytocin’s Link to Obesity and Postnatal Depression

Summary: A new study has identified the TRPC5 gene as a cause of obesity, behavioral issues, and postnatal depression. Researchers found that missing or impaired TRPC5 genes disrupt oxytocin neurons, crucial for regulating appetite and emotions. This discovery offers potential new treatments, like using oxytocin to alleviate symptoms. The findings emphasize the biological basis of certain behaviors and conditions.

Key Facts:

  1. The TRPC5 gene affects appetite, anxiety, and social behavior.
  2. Disrupted TRPC5 impacts oxytocin neurons, leading to weight gain and depression.
  3. Oxytocin treatment shows promise in reducing these symptoms.

Source: University of Cambridge

Scientists have identified a gene which, when missing or impaired, can cause obesity, behavioural problems and, in mothers, postnatal depression.

The discovery, reported today in Cell, may have wider implications for the treatment of postnatal depression, with a study in mice suggesting that oxytocin may alleviate symptoms.

Obesity and postnatal depression are significant global health problems. Postnatal depression affects more than one in 10 women within a year of giving birth and is linked to an increased risk of suicide, which accounts for as many as one in five maternal deaths in high income countries. Meanwhile, obesity has more than doubled in adults since 1990 and quadrupled in adolescents, according to the World Health Organization.

This shows DNA and a head.
Our work shows that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus to play a critical role in regulating our instincts. Credit: Neuroscience News

While investigating two boys from different families with severe obesity, anxiety, autism, and behavioural problems triggered by sounds or smells, a team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, USA, discovered that the boys were missing a single gene, known as TRPC5, which sits on the X chromosome.

Further investigation revealed that both boys inherited the gene deletion from their mothers, who were missing the gene on one of their X chromosomes. The mothers also had obesity, but in addition had experienced postnatal depression.

To test if it was the TRPC5 gene that was causing the problems in the boys and their mothers, the researchers turned to animal models, genetically-engineering mice with a defective version of the gene (Trpc5 in mice).

Male mice with this defective gene displayed the same problems as the boys, including weight gain, anxiety, a dislike of social interactions, and aggressive behaviour. 

Female mice displayed the same behaviours, but when they became mothers, they also displayed depressive behaviour and impaired maternal care. Interestingly, male mice and female mice who were not mothers but carried the mutation did not show depression-like behaviour.

Dr Yong Xu, Associate Director for Basic Sciences at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, said: “What we saw in those mice was quite remarkable. They displayed very similar behaviours to those seen in people missing the TRPC5 gene, which in mothers included signs of depression and a difficulty caring for their babies. This shows us that this gene is causing these behaviours.”

TRPC5 is one of a family of genes that are involved in detecting sensory signals, such as heat, taste and touch. This particular gene acts on a pathway in the hypothalamus region of the brain, where it is known to control appetite.

When the researchers looked in more detail at this brain region, they discovered that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons – nerve cells that produce the hormone oxytocin, often nicknamed the ‘love hormone’ because of its release in response to displays of affection, emotion and bonding.

Deleting the gene from these oxytocin neurons led to otherwise healthy mice showing similar signs of anxiety, overeating and impaired sociability, and, in the case of mothers, postnatal depression. Restoring the gene in these neurons reduced body weight and symptoms of anxiety and postnatal depression.

In addition to acting on oxytocin neurons, the team showed that TRPC5 also acts on so-called POMC neurons, which have been known for some time to play an important role in regulating weight. Children in whom the POMC gene is not working properly often have an insatiable appetite and gain weight from an early age.

Professor Sadaf Farooqi from the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge said: “There’s a reason why people lacking TRPC5 develop all of these conditions. We’ve known for a long time that the hypothalamus plays a key role in regulating ‘instinctive behaviours’ – which enable humans and animals to survive – such as looking for food, social interaction, the flight or fight response, and caring for their infants.

“Our work shows that TRPC5 acts on oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus to play a critical role in regulating our instincts.”

While deletions of the TRPC5 gene are rare, an analysis of DNA samples from around 500,000 individuals in UK Biobank revealed 369 people – around three-quarters of whom were women – that carried variants of the gene and had a higher-than-average body mass index.

The researchers say their findings suggests that restoring oxytocin could help treat people with missing or defective TRPC5 genes, and potentially mothers experiencing postnatal depression.

Professor Farooqi said: “While some genetic conditions such as TRPC5 deficiency are very rare, they teach us important lessons about how the body works. In this instance, we have made a breakthrough in understanding postnatal depression, a serious health problem about which very little is known despite many decades of research. And importantly, it may point to oxytocin as a possible treatment for some mothers with this condition.”

There is already evidence in animals that the oxytocin system is involved in both depression and in maternal care and there have been small trials into the use of oxytocin as a treatment. The team say their work provides direct proof of oxytocin’s role, which will be crucial in supporting bigger, multi-centre trials. 

Professor Farooqi added: “This research reminds us that many behaviours which we assume are entirely under our control have a strong basis in biology, whether that’s our eating behaviour, anxiety or postnatal depression. We need to be more understanding and sympathetic towards people who suffer with these conditions.” 

Funding: This work was supported by Wellcome, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, Botnar Fondation and Bernard Wolfe Health Neuroscience Endowment.

About this genetics and neuroscience research news

Author: Craig Brierley
Source: University of Cambridge
Contact: Craig Brierley – University of Cambridge
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
“Loss of Transient Receptor Potential Channel 5 Causes Obesity and Postpartum Depression” by Yong Xu et al. Cell


Loss of Transient Receptor Potential Channel 5 Causes Obesity and Postpartum Depression


  • In humans, deletion of TRPC5 causes obesity, anxiety, autism, and postpartum depression
  • Male and female mice harboring a human TRPC5 mutation recapitulate these phenotypes
  • Effects are mediated by TRPC5 acting on hypothalamic Pomc and oxytocin neurons
  • Brain-expressed TRPC5 regulates instinctive behaviors essential for survival


Hypothalamic neural circuits regulate instinctive behaviors such as food seeking, the fight/flight response, socialization, and maternal care.

Here, we identified microdeletions on chromosome Xq23 disrupting the brain-expressed transient receptor potential (TRP) channel 5 (TRPC5). This family of channels detects sensory stimuli and converts them into electrical signals interpretable by the brain.

Male TRPC5 deletion carriers exhibited food seeking, obesity, anxiety, and autism, which were recapitulated in knockin male mice harboring a human loss-of-function TRPC5 mutation.

Women carrying TRPC5 deletions had severe postpartum depression. As mothers, female knockin mice exhibited anhedonia and depression-like behavior with impaired care of offspring.

Deletion of Trpc5 from oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus caused obesity in both sexes and postpartum depressive behavior in females, while Trpc5 overexpression in oxytocin neurons in knock-in mice reversed these phenotypes.

We demonstrate that TRPC5 plays a pivotal role in mediating innate human behaviors fundamental to survival, including food seeking and maternal care.