Researchers 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 body parts, and angry faces.
Oxytocin is released naturally during relational bonding, such as sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. It has been tested as a treatment for many mental disorders, and has been shown to lower social anxiety in people with autism.
“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 from 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.”
For the first study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy controls were given either a dose of oxytocin, delivered as a nasal spray, or a placebo. The participants were then shown a series of images relating to food (high and low calorie), body shape (fat and thin), and weight (scales).
As the images flashed on the screen, researchers measured how quickly participants identified the images. If they had a tendency to focus on the negative images, they would identify them more rapidly. The test was done before and after taking oxytocin or placebo.
After receiving oxytocin, patients with anorexia reduced their focus on images of food and fat body parts. The effect of oxytocin was especially strong in patients with anorexia who had greater communication problems.
In another study, published in PLOS ONE, researchers evaluated the same participants’ reactions to facial expressions, such as anger, disgust or happiness. After taking oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the “disgust” faces and also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces.
“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, South Korea.
“There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia,” she said. “Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, groundbreaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”
Source: King’s College London