Oxytocin, or 'love hormone', can not only enhance pleasure as you mate but can also help treat teenage girls suffering from anorexia nervosa - an eating disorder and mental health condition that can be life-threatening. A team of British and Korean scientists found that oxytocin alters anorexic patients' tendencies to fixate on images of high-calorie foods and larger body shape.
As well as problems with food, eating and body shape, patients with anorexia often have social difficulties, including anxiety and hypersensitivity to negative emotions. "Using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients," said professor Janet Treasure from King's College London's institute of psychiatry.
Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years before the onset of the illness. These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. Oxytocin is a hormone released naturally during bonding, including intercourse, childbirth and breastfeeding.
As a synthesised product, it has been tested as a treatment for many psychiatric disorders, and has been shown to have benefits in lowering social anxiety in people with autism. After taking oxytocin, patients with anorexia reduced their focus (or 'attentional bias') on images of food and fat body parts.
The effect of oxytocin was particularly strong in patients with anorexia who had greater communication problems. In a second experiment, after taking a dose of oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the 'disgust' faces. They were also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces and became simply vigilant to them.
"Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape and negative emotions such as disgust," explained professor Youl-Ri Kim from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea. The hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia, said the study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.