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.