Research by British and Korean scientists found Oxytocin, a chemical in the brain known as the “love hormone”, to be an effective treatment for people suffering with anorexia nervosa.
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 with diet.
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.”
In one study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31 patients with anorexia and 33 people who did not have the disorder were given either a dose of oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, or a placebo treatment. The study participants then looked at a series of images showing a range of high and low calorie foods and people of different body shapes and weight.
According to the researchers, after taking oxytocin patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the “negative” images of food and fat body parts.
In a second study, published in Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE, with the same participants, researchers looked at their reactions to facial expressions depicting anger, disgust or happiness, because it’s known that anorexia can be linked to a heightened perception of threat, and that oxytocin could inhibit that perception.
The results showed that patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the “disgust” faces after the oxytocin treatment and they were less likely to avoid looking at the angry faces.
“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. “There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia. Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”
Treasure added that the research was at an early stage 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 study participants before oxytocin could considered for an approved treatment for anorexia.
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