In her research, family nurse practitioner Maria McDonald (PhD ’23) is investigating whether there are epigenetic risks associated with administering this synthetic hormone that may predispose moms and babies to develop depression long-term.

Oxytocin in the form of Pitocin has been used since the 1960s to induce labor in pregnant women and has become increasingly ubiquitous in the delivery room: In 1990, about one in 10 women were administered “pit” but by 2021, one in three were. Nearly 100% of women receive it in some dose to prevent postpartum hemorrhage. 

For her dissertation research, McDonald examined the impact varying levels of synthetic oxytocin had on how mothers’ mood and behavior genes chemically express through DNA methylation. Using pregnant prairie voles—creatures with social-behavioral parenting and caregiving traits similar to humans’—she examined epigenetic shifts in vole moms’ and pups’ brain and blood tissue when giving them varying doses of oxytocin.

Over the next year as a post-doctoral fellow, McDonald will continue this work with human data to explore how high doses of oxytocin increase methylation of the gene associated with mood and behavior.


  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP-BC)

Research Focus

Trans-generational depression; psychiatric nursing and mental health; maternal child mental health


Journal Articles

McDonald, M., & Alhusen, J. (2022). A review of treatments and clinical guidelines for perinatal depression. The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing, 36(3), 233-242.