New research shows the “love hormone” won’t improve emotional interactions or the ability to read emotions.
Oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone,” has been shown to be unhelpful in getting male patients to read emotional cues and improve their interactions with others. In a controlled trial testing the viability of the drug for this purpose, oxytocin nasal spray did not improve the ability to recognize sad or angry faces. The use of the drug was compared with a previously proven emotion training program, which did help. The study was published online in the July 11 edition of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
“Our study demonstrates that oxytocin may not always be the most appropriate intervention when trying to improve patients’ social lives and well-being,” said Katie Daughters, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Essex, United Kingdom.
This is important because the neuropeptide oxytocin has been suggested as an intervention to manage emotional regulation and social-emotional cognition. If it is not successful in accomplishing this purpose, then it is not worth a patient’s time and money.
Many randomized controlled trials have studied whether the drug can help patients with autism, schizophrenia, and social anxiety disorder with social-emotional cues. If these cues can be improved, researchers have surmised that individuals would be able to enhance their relationships with others. Previous studies have been met with mixed results.
“In the scientific literature, oxytocin administration has been associated with lots of positive social benefits, and as a result, there is a lot of interest in the therapeutic potential of oxytocin. However, there are very few studies that have actually compared oxytocin nasal sprays to another type of intervention,” Daughters said.
The current study included 104 healthy men with an average age of 19. Some took intranasal oxytocin (the often recommended 24 IU in 3 puffs of 4 IU per nostril) and others were administered a placebo. The team measured the results of taking the drug (or a placebo) for emotional regulation and identification against the Cardiff Emotion Recognition Training (CERT) program and a mock training program. Only those men who completed the CERT program were able to more readily identify sadness and anger and the team found that taking the drug while enrolled had no added benefit on improving emotion identification and improving interactions.
“Emotion recognition training may therefore provide a specific and beneficial psychological intervention to support not only emotion recognition but also social interactions more widely,” the authors wrote, adding, “Importantly, this research implies that therapeutic interventions of intranasal oxytocin would require multiple doses per day to maintain oxytocin concentrations associated with the desired effects. Assuming one would want the effects to last during daylight hours, and that elevated oxytocin concentrations last for 2 hours, this could require as many as seven doses a day.”
One limitation of the study is that it focused only on men. It is unclear whether women would experience the same results.
“Our current understanding of how oxytocin sprays work suggests that, in their current form, it may not be a practical solution,” Daughters said. “On the other hand, computer-based psychological interventions, like helping someone to recognize different emotional expressions and how to interpret their meaning in different scenarios, may not only provide longer-lasting beneficial impact but also cost less.”