Hormone may Help Anorexia Patients' Perceptions

Intranasal oxytocin changed the way anorexia patients reacted to social cues

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) People with eating disorders often have social difficulties, as well. One hormone may improve how people with anorexia perceive the world around them. 

Anorexia nervosa patients may avoid eating due to fears about weight and body image that are rooted in the way they process information around them. In two recent studies, researchers tested whether the hormone oxytocin could help anorexia patients with such issues.

The hormone oxytocin is released by the body naturally during childbirth and breastfeeding. Treatment with oxytocin has been shown to help lower social anxiety in some people.

These two recent studies found that oxytocin nasal spray could change the way anorexia patients fixated on pictures of larger body shapes and higher-calorie food, as well as their response to pictures of angry or disgusted faces.

"Share concerns about your eating habits with your doctor."

Youl-Ri Kim, MD, PhD, from that Department of Neuropsychiatry at Seoul Paik Hospital of Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, was the lead investigator of these studies.

Because patients with anorexia nervosa may be sensitive to negative emotions and weight concerns, the main aim of the studies was to see if the attention and focus patients with anorexia gave certain images would be changed after using oxytocin nasal spray.

The researchers recruited 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy people. These patients were each given a dose of oxytocin by nasal spray or a placebo spray that did not contain oxytocin.

In the first study, the participants were asked to look at pictures of high- and low-calorie food, overweight and thin people and scales. To measure whether the study subjects focused on or avoided the images, the researchers measured the response time of the subjects to the image. The image response testing was done before and after the participants used the nasal spray with oxytocin or placebo.

Results showed that the anorexia patients who received oxytocin focused less on the images of high-calorie food and fat bodies than the patients who received placebo nasal spray.

The effect of oxytocin to decrease focus on fat bodies was greater in patients with anorexia who also had some communication problems similar to autism than in the patients without communication problems.

This finding prompted the authors of the first study to suggest, “Further studies will be needed to examine whether a higher level of autistic traits and vulnerability might be a marker of responsivity to oxytocin.”

The research team used the same participants in the second study, which tested facial expressions. Study subjects were given nasal spray containing oxytocin or placebo, as in the first study. This time, the subjects were shown faces with different expressions, such as disgust, happiness or anger. The researchers analyzed how long the study subjects focused on the faces.

Results of the second study showed that patients with anorexia, as well as healthy control subjects, were less apt to focus on the faces showing an expression of disgust if they had taken the oxytocin nasal spray first, compared to those who had taken the placebo spray.

Subjects with anorexia avoided focusing on the angry faces. Those with anorexia who were given oxytocin decreased their avoidance of the angry faces compared to those who had taken the placebo nasal spray.

“We conclude that patients with anorexia nervosa appear to use different strategies/circuits to emotionally process anger from their healthy counterparts,” the authors of the second study wrote.

“These findings suggest that further evaluation of oxytocin nasal spray as a treatment to improve emotional processing and social communication particularly in relationship to anger may be of value in patients with [anorexia nervosa],” these authors wrote.

The authors of both studies cited limitations to their research, including the fact that the patients were at different phases of treatment for their disease. Furthermore, the dose of oxytocin was not adjusted for body size and the researchers did not measure other factors that may have affected attention to the images.

The first study on social and emotional factors was published in the March issue of PLOS ONE. The second study on eating and shape reactions was published in the March issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Support for this research was provided by the National Research Foundation of Korea.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
March 18, 2014
Last Updated:
March 19, 2014