In studies of anorexic patients, researchers found
oxytocin altered their tendencies to become fixated on images of
fattening foods and large body shapes — suggesting it could be
developed as a treatment to help them overcome unhealthy obsessions
Anorexia nervosa affects millions of people worldwide — including
around 1 in 150 teenage girls in Britain, where it is one of the
leading causes of mental health-related deaths, both due to physical
complications and suicide. While it mostly affects girls and women
the condition can also affect males.
As well as problems with food, eating and body shape, patients with
anorexia often have social difficulties, including anxiety and
hypersensitivity to negative emotions.
"Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which
often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the
illness," said Janet Treasure, a professor at King's College
London's Institute of Psychiatry, who worked on two studies on the
hormone published in science journals on Thursday.
"By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are
focusing on some of these underlying problems," she said.
Oxytocin is a hormone released naturally in human bonding, including
during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. As a synthesized product,
it has been tested as a treatment for various psychiatric disorders.
Some studies have shown it has benefits in lowering social anxiety
in people with autism.
In the first of two studies, Treasure's team analyzed 31 patients
with anorexia and 33 healthy controls who were given either oxytocin
or a placebo. Participants were asked before and after taking the
drug or placebo to look at images relating to weight, high and low
calorie foods, and fat and thin body shapes.
As images flashed up, the researchers measured how quickly
participants identified them. If they had a tendency to focus on the
negative images, they would identify them more rapidly.
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The results, published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal,
showed that after taking oxytocin, anorexic patients reduced their
focus on images of food and fat bodies.
In a second study, published in Public Library of Science journal
PLOS ONE, the researchers used the same participants, the same drug
and placebo, but tested reactions to facial expressions such as
anger, disgust or happiness. After taking a dose of oxytocin,
patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the "disgust"
"Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious
tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions,"
said Youl-Ri Kim, a professor at Inje University in Seoul, South
Korea who worked with Treasure.
He said the result "hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking
treatment option for patients with anorexia."
Treasure stressed the research was at an early stage, however, and
although it was "hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment
could have", much larger trials would need to be carried out on more
diverse participants before oxytocin could considered for an
(Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)
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