Dramatic photo by Dr. Welch’s lab showing abundance of oxytocin receptors in the gut of a baby rodent. Previous to Dr. Welch’s discovery, oxytocin was thought to be primarily a brain hormone.

The neurohormone oxytocin is traditionally linked to childbirth. Now, thanks to 50 years of inspiration and effort by a physician and researcher at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City we now know oxytocin can have a profound influence on inflammation as well as development and well-being. This journey into the depths of human biology has unveiled how oxytocin orchestrates some of the most intimate aspects of our lives, from the bonds between mothers and infants to its unexpected roles in physical health. This new research on oxytocin in the gut, combined with Dr. Welch’s clinical trials of family interventions, challenges some of science’s longest held assumptions about behavior. It also opens up exciting new possibilities for prevention and for treating infants and children with a wide range of emotional and developmental problems. 

“This is the story of my 50-year career in medicine and research, and the people who influenced and helped me most along the way,” says Martha G. Welch MD, Professor of Psychiatry in Pediatrics and in Pathology & Cell Biology. A detailed retrospective of her clinical and basic research was recently published in the journal Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology. Dr. Welch explains her research suggests that oxytocin plays a more crucial role in establishing and maintaining the physical health and brain function of individuals than previously thought. “Beyond its biological functions within the body, oxytocin is also, crucially, a social hormone. It’s commonly known as ‘the love hormone’ because of its lifelong effects on our social behavior and bonds,” said Dr. Welch. Oxytocin has the power through relationship to protect against loneliness, both socially and physiologically, and it buffers the inflammation caused by stress. 

Dr. Welch and her team conducted randomized controlled trials over a nine-year period among mothers and prematurely born infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The trials compared Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) with standard care. FNI aimed to connect the mother and infant emotionally before they left the hospital. The trials have shown remarkable results. Thus far, Dr. Welch and her team have published 17 peer-reviewed articles showing that a relatively small dose of facilitated FNI in the hospital (an average 24 hours per week for six weeks) led to significantly improved developmental outcomes and stronger maternal-infant bonds. For instance, infants in the FNI group exhibited lower heart rates and heightened brain activity over their NICU stay, while mothers experienced notable alleviation of depressive symptoms. “FNI infants demonstrated markedly superior neurobehavioral development both in the short and long term, along with healthier autonomic functioning and developmental trajectories. Moreover, FNI mother-infant pairs exhibited significantly enhanced cardiovascular responding, which endured even through the five-year follow-up period.” said Dr. Welch. 

Approach and avoidant WECS behaviors and accompanying autonomic physiology.
(Figure attribution: Robert J Ludwig)

Additionally, Dr. Welch and her team developed the novel Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS), a validated assessment tool that measures parent and infant/child relational emotional behaviors during an orienting reflex test. This tool has proven invaluable in both research and clinical settings, helping healthcare professionals assess and foster emotional interactions that are vital for healthy development.

Central to Dr. Welch’s work is her theory of autonomic co-regulation, which challenges conventional brain-centric models of emotional regulation. “When we connect, our bodies engage in a process I call autonomic co-regulation. It’s a process by which our nervous systems sync up and calm each other down”, explains Dr. Welch. She takes the conventional psychological definition of co-regulation, which describes how individuals influence each other’s behavior and emotions, a step further by proposing that it operates on a deeper physiological level that has a profound impact on our biology, productivity, resilience, longevity, and even happiness.

Dr. Welch’s research has been pivotal in demonstrating that co-regulation and oxytocin can influence a wide range of physiological and behavioral outcomes, from reducing stress responses in infants to enhancing social behaviors in older children. “Dr. Welch is a brilliant scientist with unique clinical and biological insights, and her research has demonstrated that,” said C. Sue Carter, PhD, Distinguished University Scientist and Rudy Professor Emerita of Biology at Indiana University. “Dr. Welch was the first to recognize that parent-child calming behaviors were coregulating the release of hormones like oxytocin with consequences for the body’s autonomic nervous system. Amazingly she used that information to develop fast and effective novel parenting interventions to overcome behavioral and developmental disorders.”

Recent studies and publications by Dr. Welch continue to garner attention in the scientific community. For example, a 2023 Frontiers in Psychology journal article entitled “Preschool-based mother-child emotional preparation program improves emotional connection, behavior regulation in the home and classroom: a randomized controlled trial” reported a significant five-fold increase in emotional connection between mother-child pairs at 6 months compared to the control pairs. 

Dr. Welch’s research is just beginning to be more widely recognized, and along with the recognition Dr. Welch hopes to inspire a new generation of researchers to explore the complex interactions between biology and emotional health. “I hope to inspire young women and men who are beginning their careers in research,” reflects Dr. Welch, highlighting the educational potential of her work.

Dr. Welch’s ongoing research promises to further reshape our understanding of human biology and emotional connection, underscoring her role as a pioneering figure in medical science.

Journal Reference

Welch, M. G. (2024). Fantastic Voyage: Chasing Oxytocin from the Bedside to the Bench and Back Again. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, 17, 100213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpnec.2023.100213

About the Author

Martha G. Welch, MD has been a pioneer in the treatment of emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders for nearly 50 years. Decades of clinical observations led her to create a new ‘autonomic’ theory of emotions, which is centered on the primacy of parent-child co-regulatory processes throughout child development. Dr. Welch founded The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University Medical Center to conduct basic and clinical research aimed at elucidating the mechanism of parent-infant and parent-child co-regulation, leading her to validate her novel theoretical construct of emotional connection. Most recently, she and a team of dedicated colleagues, formed the Martha G. Welch Center for Emotional Connection to provide direct help to families struggling with infant and child behavioral problems.