A small study carried out by researchers in the UK and South Korea has been seized on by the media as evidence that oxytocin nasal spray could even be used as a treatment for anorexia, alongside other possible medical uses such as the treatment of autism.
However, the official website of the British NHS (national health service) urges caution. Although the study appeared to find that oxytocin nasal spray did have an effect in reducing powerful emotional responses to body image and food, it is far too early to say whether long term effects would be sufficient to form the basis of a new treatment for a complex psychological illness such as anorexia.
This story involved the media’s favourite hormone, oxytocin which, depending on what pop-science source you read, has been dubbed as the “love”, “cuddle” or “kissing” hormone, as it is associated with intense emotions (both positive and negative).
The study found that 31 South Korean women with anorexia given an intranasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin paid less attention to images of food and fatter body shapes, but not to other weight-related images, 45 minutes later. Oxytocin had no effect on how much fruit juice the women could drink at the end of the study.
It is at best unclear whether these short term effects would lead to any improvement in the symptoms of anorexia. The results also may not be indicative of what would be found in a more diverse and larger group of people with anorexia.
This is far from convincing evidence that oxytocin could offer a treatment or “cure” for anorexia as implied by the headlines.
As scientists take an ever more closer interest into the workings and effects of oxytocin, it was inevitable that a ‘darker side’ of the supposed love hormone would emerge. A new study appears to have confirmed earlier research which suggested that oxytocin might increase the ‘in-group/out-group’ mentality. This time, the researchers looked at the effect that oxytocin might have on a very ancient and disturbing human form of the trait – racism. Using the implicit association psychological test, the Dutch research team found that their countrymen were more likely to associate both Germans and muslims with negative words if they had taken a dose of oxytocin spray, rather than a placebo.
Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade put it as follows :
As oxytocin comes into sharper focus, its social radius of action turns out to have definite limits. The love and trust it promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.
You can read an excellent interpretation of the study’s results here.
Oxytocin has been long known to be associated with female psychology, particularly with regard to the reproduction processes – such as giving birth or having sex. Now it seems that oxytocin could be linked to female happiness per se. A graduate researcher in America studied the oxytocin levels of women before and after they were given $24 by a stranger. Oxytocin levels rose in most of the women, but rose most in those women who were already happier in their lives.
Oxytocin nasal spray may even eventually be used to treat depression, after researchers at the Medical School of South Carolina discovered that when depressed subjects inhaled the spray, their brain activity began to resemble that of normal volunteers.
Oxytocin, a hormone which is produced by breast-feeding mothers and by both genders during sexual activity, could eventually be used as an antidepressant, say researchers.
According to Dr. Ziad Nahas, a researcher at the Medical School of South Carolina, when depressed subjects inhaled the hormone, their brain activity began to more closely resemble that of healthy subjects.
Oxytocin has been linked to social bonding and attachment, said Nahas, and acts as a stress reliever. Since depressed individuals feel anxious and socially disconnected, oxytocin might help them feel less depressed.
Source : Hormone Shows Potential as Anti-Depressant
Oxytocin spray could be used to treat people with shyness, autism, and other social functioning deficits according to a new study. Researchers from Israel and New York gave a group of 27 healthy men doses of oxytocin nasal spray and then asked them to peform ’emphatic accuracy tests’. Those men who were shy or who had poor social functioning skills found that the spray improved their ability to recognise emotion in others.
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A Belgian study into the effects of oxytocin appear to indicate that concerns over the potential for politicians and buisnesses to exploit the trusting properties of the hormone may be overstated. The team, working from the Catholic University of Louvain, appear to have demonstrated that oxytocin increases trust without increasing outright gullibility. In other words, oxytocin only works in certain situations and contexts, namely when the person has already reason to belive that another person is reliable and trustworthy.
The participants were paired up with a computer and virtual partners, some of whom appeared to be reliable (the type to share the money) and some who appeared unreliable (those likely to keep it all for themselves).
Compared to participants who were given the placebo, those who received the oxytocin offered more money to the computer and the reliable partners. However, those in the oxytocin group were no more likely than those who received the placebo to share money with a seemingly unreliable partner.
Oxytocin increases trust, not gullibility
Paul Zak, a university professor and popular ‘neuroeconominist’, has claimed to have found that oxytocin levels are raised by using social networking sites such as Twitter – just as they are in real face-to-face relationships.
The experiment was performed on one person only, but if accepted does appear to have implications both for understanding how oxytocin is triggered in human relationships and also in taking seriously the idea that online networking is just as ‘real’ as offline human interaction.
In a sense, social networking is undeniably safer and more controlled than that in the real world – you can easily block unwanted contacts for example. Therefore, it shouldn’t be altogether surprising that the ‘trust hormone’ is easily switched on when interacting online.
Whilst the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin has been well documented to promote bonding and trust between people, a new study suggests that it may also play a role in the ‘in-group/out-group’ mentality that reaches it’s sharpest focus on the battle field. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam have found that volunteers given oxytocin nasal spray bonded and became much more protective of people seen as belonging to their own group, but grew far more hostile and aggressive to those perceived as outsiders.
Dr Carsten De Dreu, of the University of Amsterdam, said that the phenomenon was known as “parochial altruism” or “tend and defend”.
This meant that boosted levels of oxytocin produced “in-group love” and “out-group aggression”, he said.
Dr De Dreu, who published the findings in Science, said: “Oxytocin is a double edged sword. It makes you kinder to your group but more aggressive to those outside.”
Source : Love Hormone Oxytocin helps soldiers like each other and hate the enemy
In February, researchers in France reported that patients with high-functioning autism (asperger’s syndrome) were better able to interact socially when given doses of oxytocin nasal spray. Now a second study has appeared to confirm that treating autistic patients with oxytocin hormone can help to alleviate their symptoms. Evdokia Anagnostou, a child neurologist working in Canada, presented her findings last week, claiming that people with autism who were given twice daily doses of oxytocin improved their social cognition and were better able to recognise emotion in others.
source : Drugs improve social skills of autism sufferers.
The Daily Mail reports that researchers are using oxytocin nasal spray to treat women with interstitial cystitis, or chronic inflammation of the bladder wall. The trial is based on the observation that breast feeding women (who have naturally raised levels of oxytocin) often have cystitis symptoms reduced. Those behind the trial at the University of Alabama believe that oxytocin has analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.