The same hormone that helps mothers and babies bond may help ease the symptoms of schizophrenia.
New research studying the effects of oxytocin suggests that the hormone may have a potential benefit in treating patients with schizophrenia.
Dr. David Feifel from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, and his research team, found that a nasal spray of oxytocin administered to patients with schizophrenia resulted in a reduction of symptoms.
Oxytoxin is a hormone that is important in promoting bonding. Levels of oxytocin increase during close physical contact, such as cuddling, or when a mother nurses a baby. Prior research has shown that oxytoxin can decrease levels of fear, can improve emotional attachment in individuals with autism, and can increase levels of trust.
Feifel and his team studied 19 individuals with schizophrenia. Each patient received either the oxytocin nasal spray, or a placebo nasal spray for three weeks. After the three weeks, there was a one-week rest period, then each participant crossed over, and received the other treatment for the next three weeks. Each patient continued their regular psychiatric medication and therapy.
Symptoms of schizophrenia were assessed before and after each treatment by two different standard clinical assessments, the Positive and Negative Symptom Scale and the Clinical Global Impression-Improvement Scale.
15 patients completed the study. At first, no change was seen in symptoms, but by the end of the third week on the oxytocin nasal spray, the patients had on average an eight percent reduction of symptoms, including a decrease in symptoms of psychosis.
There were no apparent side effects noted during the three-week trial by either patient report or laboratory testing.
Previous studies have shown that mice who are unable to produce the hormone are more susceptible to amphetamine-induced psychosis. Although the exact mechanism by which oxytocin might work to decrease schizophrenic symptoms is unclear, there are several possibilities. Oxytocin may help lower the levels of dopamine which can lead to hallucination if too high. Or, as oxytocin has been shown to increase levels of trust, it may work by decreasing symptoms of paranoia.
While the study was small and short term, it is an important first step in possibly finding a new possible avenue of treatment for schizophrenia and perhaps other psychiatric illnesses. Further research may determine if oxytocin is of real benefit in treating schizophrenia.
“It’s proof of concept that there’s therapeutic potential here,” says Feifel.
Dr. Feifel’s results are published in the July 7 edition of the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Source: Biological Psychiatry