Summary: Despite oxytocin nasal sprays being touted as a potential panacea to save broken relationships, researchers say it’s highly unlikely to work. Nasal oxytocin does have benefits for the treatment of ASD and depression.
Source: University of Essex
Taking the ‘love hormone’ is unlikely to be a miracle cure to mend marriages, suggests University of Essex research.
The study – in collaboration with Cardiff University – has shown that therapy helps men read emotions more than dosing with oxytocin, which is released naturally and plays an important role in regulating behaviour, such as emotions and personal relationships.
This is despite nasal sprays of the hormone being marketed as a potential panacea to save fractious relationships, increase parental bonds, and even reduce body fat.
However, the paper – published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – showed the solutions had no impact on more than 100 healthy men who took part in the study.
Dr Katie Daughters says the research, which was carried out with colleagues in Cardiff, revealed we need to know more about oxytocin before using it as a treatment.
She said: “Our study serves as an important reminder that oxytocin may not always be the most effective tool when trying to improve the social lives and mental health of others.
“There are lots of studies examining whether oxytocin can increase a particular desired outcome, but relatively few studies have actually compared whether oxytocin is better than something else which is also designed to increase the same outcome.
“In our study, we wanted to improve people’s ability to recognise emotions, as individuals who struggle to recognise emotions are at an increased risk of developing poor mental health.
“We found that in healthy young men, those who completed our computer-based emotion training program were better at recognising some emotions, but those who had oxytocin showed no benefit.”
As part of the study, Dr Daughters recruited 104 healthy men with an average age of 19 who were tested in a randomised, double-blind study.
Some were given intranasal oxytocin, others a placebo and then took some took part in either an accredited emotional training program – known as the Cardiff Emotion Recognition Training program – or a mock training program.
They were then quickly shown faces that had been morphed into different levels of emotion.
It emerged that the training helped identify sad and angry faces – but oxytocin has no effect whatsoever.
Dr Daughters says more research is now needed to test oxytocin with women and on those who suffer from psychological disorders.
It is still hoped the hormone could be used to help those with autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia and women with post-natal depression – who struggle with emotion recognition.
Dr Daughters added: “Many of us are interested in the potential oxytocin has to improve the social lives of individuals, however, if other methods are found to be as effective, or better then we need to be open to these as well.
“Our current understanding of how oxytocin sprays work suggests that, in their current form, it may not be a practical solution.
“In particular, the beneficial effects of oxytocin that we want to bolster only last for several hours.
“On the other hand, computer-based psychological interventions, like helping someone to recognise different emotional expressions and how to interpret their meaning in different scenarios, may not only provide longer-lasting beneficial impact but also cost less.”
Oxytocin administration versus emotion training in healthy males: considerations for future research
Identifying emotions correctly is essential for successful social interaction. There is therefore a keen interest in designing therapeutic interventions to improve emotion recognition in individuals who struggle with social interaction.
The neuropeptide oxytocin has been proposed as a potential physiological intervention due to its important role in emotion recognition and other aspects of social cognition. However, there are a number of caveats to consider with the current form of intranasal oxytocin commonly used in the literature.
Psychological interventions, on the other hand, do not carry the same caveats, and there is, therefore, a need to understand how intranasal oxytocin administration compares to psychological interventions designed to target the same psychological phenomena; and whether a combined intervention approach may provide additive benefits.
Here we present a pilot, proof-of-concept study in healthy volunteers comparing the effect of intranasal oxytocin against a validated emotion training programme, finding that the psychological intervention, and not intranasal oxytocin, improved emotion recognition specifically for angry expressions. We discuss the theoretical implications of the research for future clinical trials.