The role of oxytocin in parturition


* Correspondence: Dr S. Thornton, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK.


Oxytocin and the oxytocin receptor have two important roles in labour. Evidence in all mammalian species suggests that neurohypophysical oxytocin plays a role in the expulsive phase and, although there are less supporting data, a role for oxytocin in the initiation of labour is likely. The initiation of labour may be mediated in women and rhesus monkeys by paracrine rather than endocrine mechanisms. Although initial characterisation of the oxytocin knockout mouse suggested that oxytocin is not important in this species, subsequent investigations have demonstrated that oxytocin is important for the precise timing of the onset of labour. Studies in knockout mice also confirm important interrelationships between oxytocin and prostaglandins. Oxytocin stimulates prostaglandin release in many species, mainly in the decidua/uterine epithelium. The effects of oxytocin are mediated by tissue-specific oxytocin receptor expression, which leads directly to contraction in the myometrium and prostaglandin formation in the decidua. There is a dramatic increase in oxytocin receptor expression in these tissues in late pregnancy and pharmacological inhibition delays delivery, which suggests that, in contrast to oxytocin, the oxytocin receptor is essential for normal labour.