There are websites—the kind that guarantee risk-free trials and feature dubious doctoral testimonials—that sell nasal and oral sprays that will spice up your lacking love life, help you get that big promotion, or help calm you down. These websites sell oxytocin, a naturally-occurring hormone created in the brain that helps mothers bond with their newborns.
They actually may be on to something. In clinical studies, people who took nasally-administered oxytocin were 80 percent more generous with their money than people who took a placebo. And the science behind the so-called "trust hormone" is advancing rapidly enough for the military to look into its potential applications, leading some researchers to wonder if oxytocin could be used as a powerful interrogation tool.
In its current synthetic forms—over-the-counter "Liquid Trust" and "Oxytocin Factor" sprays—oxytocin would have little use for interrogators. But researchers are working on a pill that would stimulate oxytocin production in people's brains, making the effect much stronger.
Instead of using interrogation techniques that threaten to harm detainees and have been repeatedly proven to be ineffective, interrogators could play "good cop" with detainees. With the added edge of oxytocin, they could "tip the balances a little," says Larry Young, a researcher who studies the hormone at Emory University near Atlanta.
"The effects we're seeing from oxytocin today are really just the tip of the iceberg," Young says. "Instead of getting them to sniff the obvious bottle of oxytocin, we could put a pill in their coffee and cause their brain to be flooded with oxytocin. You're not getting a truth serum, but you're getting them to trust you."
In a way, interrogators already use oxytocin to get detainees to trust them. By being nice to them, offering them coffee, or getting them food, they're stimulating oxytocin production in the detainee's brain, Young says. But a pill or aerosol that could be sprayed into a room to create the quantities of oxytocin seen in nursing infants and their mothers isn't that far off.
"I can already do it in animals," he says. In a year or two, it might become a reality. Which means people need to start thinking about the implications of it now, experts argue. It's not clear whether oxytocin would be legal under the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws "any chemical … which can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to humans or animals."
Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist with the University of Pennsylvania, says oxytocin pills would most likely be banned.
"It seems on the face of it more humane [than torture], but on the other hand, in its own way it's another form of undermining human dignity … if you're using a chemical, you're losing control over who you are. It somehow gets to a deeper level of what it means to be a person," he says.
Young thinks it's not quite that dire.
"I'm not saying it's ethical, and it's important that these things be discussed," he says. "But it's not like oxytocin is taking over someone's willpower." And even though the legality of the chemical for use in interrogations is up in the air, he says it has a much more interesting medical use in civilian populations. Young believes that, because of its calming effects, oxytocin may hold the key to socially integrating people suffering from autism.
A potential loophole in the Chemical Weapons Convention may allow for the substance to be used on independent fighters, such as terrorists.
"There's the question about whether it could be used on people who aren't fighting for a sovereign state," Moreno says.
There's also nothing in the convention about what countries can use on their own people—so countries may be allowed to use oxytocin on domestic criminals and suspects.
Moreno and other ethicists have warned that if countries don't figure out what to do with oxytocin and other neurological agents, they'll regret it. In October 2002, the Russian government used a chemical that knocked out more than 700 hostages being held captive by Chechen rebels—killing at least 130 of them in the process. According to a 2009 opinion piece in the journal Nature, "an acrimonious argument over the control of nonlethal weapons is now under way among the states that have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention … life scientists should actively discuss the effectiveness and safety of potential incapacitating agents."
Paul Zak, perhaps the country's preeminent oxytocin scientist, is currently working on an undisclosed project with the Department of Defense. It's not the first time the Department of Defense has been interested in his work.
"I went to a DoD conference and gave a spiel on oxytocin, talking about why we trust some people and why we avoid other people," he says. "Afterwards, this guy comes up to me and says 'I interrogate terrorists for a living, I need this stuff tomorrow.'"
But if the Department of Defense is looking for a truth serum, there are better alternatives according to Zak. "Valium, sodium pentothal, ecstasy … if you're going to drug people, why not drug the hell out of them," he says. By comparison, "oxytocin's effects are pretty subtle."
Zak thinks oxytocin's bonding effects—the way it might help regulate soldiers' moods and build trust within a unit—is of much more interest to the military.
"It helps you build rapport," he says. "I think just understanding how the [trust] system is tuned up or tuned down would be much more useful to the DoD and their understanding of daily life [in the force]."
But Young says it could be a dual-threat hormone.
"It builds camaraderie and ingroup cohesion, so sure [the military] would be interested in it," he says. "But, based on what scientists are doing, they've got to be thinking that maybe they can use this as an interrogation technique."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com