A Promising Treatment for Anorexia: Oxytocin

oxytocinAlso called the “love hormone, ” oxytocin may be a promising new treatment for anorexia nervosa.[1] Researchers from two new studies found that when patients with anorexia are given a dose of oxytocin, they are less likely to fixate on images of high-calorie foods, fat on body parts, and negative facial expressions.1

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released naturally in our brains during relational bonding activities, such as sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding.1 Researchers have been studying this hormone for years, as a treatment for many mental disorders, and it has been shown to lower social anxiety in those with autism.1

“Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness,” said senior author Dr. Janet Treasure of the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London. “These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients.”1

The first study focused on 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy control patients.1 Both groups were split in two and given either a nasal spray dose of oxytocin or a placebo.1 The participants were then shown a series of images relating to food, body shape, and weight.1 As the images flashed on the screen, researchers measured how quickly the patients identified the images.1 If they focused more on negative images, they would identify them more rapidly.1 This test was conducted both before and after taking the oxytocin or placebo.1 Researchers found that after receiving oxytocin, patients with anorexia reduced their focus on negative images.1

The second study evaluated the same participants’ reactions to facial expressions, such as anger, disgust, or happiness.1 After having received the oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the faces of disgust and were also less likely to avoid looking at the angry faces.1

“Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients’ unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust,” said lead author Dr. Youl-Ri Kim from Inje University in Seoul. “There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia. Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illness, and hints at the advent of a novel, groundbreaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”1

[1] Pedersen, T. (2014). Oxytocin Shows Promise in Treating Anorexia. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/03/23/oxytocin-shows-promise-in-treating-anorexia/67495.html

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