"Love hormone" Oxytocin helps people overcome fear, suggest German researchers, adding that the bonding hormone inhibits the fear centre in the brain and allows fear stimuli to subside more easily.
The findings could usher in a new era in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
"Under Oxytocin's influence, the expectation of recurrent fear subsequently abates to a greater extent," explained Rene Hurlemann from department of psychiatry and psychotherapy of the University of Bonn Hospital in Germany.
For the study, the team induced fear conditioning in 62 healthy male participants.
In the brain scanner, participants viewed photos of human faces.
For 70% of the images, they received a very brief, unpleasant electrical shock to the hand via electrodes.
"In this way, certain images were associated with an experience of anxiety in the subjects' memory," Hurlemann added.
The scientists used two methods to prove that this pairing of a particular photo and pain was actually anchored in the subjects' brains.
"The expectation of an electrical shock was demonstrated by increased cold sweat which was measured via skin conductivity. In addition, the brain scans prove that the fear regions in the brain were always particularly active," the authors maintained.
Half of the test subjects received oxytocin via a nasal spray. The rest received a placebo.
In the men under the influence of oxytocin, the amygdala- the fear centre in the brain- was overall far less active than in the control group.
The scientists hope that anxiety patients can be helped more quickly with the aid of oxytocin and that a relapse can be better prevented.
The study appeared online in the journal Biological Psychiatry.