"‘Cuddle’ hormone could help lift the cloud of depression," the Mail Online reports, while The Daily Telegraph says that the substance could help "sufferers to seek support".
The story comes from a small and highly artificial study looking at whether an oxytocin nasal spray could help people to trust others after they have been socially rejected.
Oxytocin is a natural hormone usually studied for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding. More recently, however, researchers have begun to look at the effects of oxytocin on social bonding and sexual fulfilment.
In the current study, participants were randomly given either an oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo spray.
Social rejection was then simulated during a staged interview, in which an initially friendly interviewer became increasingly hostile and then dismissive, to prompt feelings of social rejection.
Researchers found that, in people who had a lower mood after being socially rejected, feelings of trust towards others (“self-perceived trust”) were increased if they had inhaled oxytocin. In those whose mood was not affected by social rejection, the oxytocin had no effect.
Oxytocin may have a role in human emotion. However, while apparently encouraging, this small study provides little clear evidence of a benefit from using an oxytocin spray. It also provides no evidence of the safety of using oxytocin.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Concordia University, Canada. There is no information about external funding.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
The conclusions of the study were overstated in both the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, with the Mail’s headline incorrectly stating that: “Treatment using ‘cuddle’ hormone could help lift the cloud of depression”. The Mail also reported that people who suffered rejection “found it easier to talk to others about their feelings” after taking oxytocin, but this was not tested by this study.
What kind of research was this?
This was an experiment to find out if the hormone oxytocin had any effect on “self-perceived trust” in people who experienced higher rates of negative mood following social rejection.
Oxytocin is thought to have an effect on certain regions of the brain in response to emotional and physical stress, with recent evidence suggesting that the hormone could underlie the “tend and befriend” response. In other words, it may help people reach out for social support in response to stress. The researchers’ theory is that people who experience a strong negative mood in response to social rejection might have an increase in self-perceived trust if they are given oxytocin, compared with those who are less negatively affected by social rejection.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 100 students, half of whom were men, and half women, aged 18 to 35. They excluded pregnant women, those not fluent in the English language and anyone with a history of mental illness, recreational drug use, medication use and tobacco use.
Before treatment, the participants completed a 72-item questionnaire, which assessed six subjective mood states:
The study results were based on the total score from the questionnaire, with lower scores indicating a more negative mood.
Following the questionnaires the participants were given either a 24IU dose of oxytocin or a placebo using a nasal spray. The participants had been randomised to treatment beforehand. After 50 minutes they completed a second questionnaire on mood.
In a situation intended to simulate real life, the participants then took part in two 10-minute conversations. In these conversations researchers, posing as students, increasingly disagreed with, interrupted and ignored the participants, gradually excluding them from each conversation. Previous research shows that doing this is effective in inducing negative mood.
Ninety minutes after taking the drug or placebo, participants completed further questionnaires on their mood and another questionnaire to measure trust, with higher scores reflecting greater trust.
The data was analysed using standard statistical techniques.
What were the basic results?
Among people who felt worse following social rejection, those who were given oxytocin reported increased trust, compared with those who were given a placebo.
Those who had oxytocin but had not felt much worse following social rejection reported no increase in trust.
The researchers found that this effect remained statistically significant after researchers had taken into account the participants’ mood on arrival at the lab.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers say their findings suggest that oxytocin may help people reach out for social support in times of distress by increasing their ability to trust others. They say this is consistent with the “tend and befriend” theory associated with oxytocin, which is that oxytocin motivates people to “affiliate with others” in times of distress.
They say intranasal oxytocin may promote trust by dampening the “fear circuitry” in the central nervous system during distress, and by facilitating the brain circuitry important for “social-approach” behaviours.
They conclude that oxytocin may have important clinical benefits for those who are acutely distressed.
This small, short-term laboratory study seems to suggest that oxytocin may help those who are in distress following social rejection to feel more trusting of others.
However, before considering the results of this study seriously, it is worth taking into account its considerable limitations, which include:
- that it took place in a laboratory environment, in which social rejection was artificially simulated
- that it measured a short-term, specific reaction to social rejection, which means that we still have no idea whether oxytocin could lead to long-term or general improvements in people’s feelings
As such, its conclusions are very limited. It certainly does not show that oxytocin can help with serious depression or other mood disorders.
It is also unknown whether it would be safe to take oxytocin on a long-term basis or whether it would be suitable for all populations.
If you are feeling depressed or anxious it is recommended that you stick to evidence-based methods such as talking therapies, exercise and, in some cases, medication.