- Study found that people who suffered rejection found it easier to talk with others about their feelings after sniffing oxytocin compared to a placebo
- Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes feelings of happiness, love and trust
Treating depression with the ‘cuddle’ hormone oxytocin could help patients reach out for help rather than become reclusive, a new study shows.
Oxytocin, a bonding chemical produced by new mothers as well as during sex, was found to help people reach out to others in times of stress.
Now experts believe it could be an effective method for improving mood.
Doctor Mark Ellenbogen of Concordia University in Canada said: ‘That means that instead of the traditional “fight or flight” response to social conflict where people get revved up to respond to a challenge or run away from it, oxytocin may promote the “tend and befriend” response where people reach out to others for support after a stressful event.
‘That can, in turn, strengthen social bonds and may be a healthier way to cope.’
In an experiment, 100 students were administered either oxytocin or a placebo via a nasal spray, then subjected to social rejection.
In a conversation that was staged to simulate real life, researchers posing as students disagreed with, interrupted and ignored the unsuspecting participants.
Using mood and personality questionnaires, the data showed that participants who were particularly distressed after being snubbed by the researchers reported greater trust in other people if they sniffed oxytocin prior to the event, but not if they sniffed the placebo.
In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on trust in those who were not emotionally affected by social rejection.
Cardoso, who is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, says that studying oxytocin may provide future options for those who suffer from mental health conditions characterized by high levels of stress and low levels of social support, such as depression.
He said: ‘If someone is feeling very distressed, oxytocin could promote social support seeking, and that may be especially helpful to those individuals.”
He added that people with depression tend to naturally withdraw even though reaching out to social support systems can alleviate depression and facilitate recovery.
Doctor Ellenbogen said the contribution of stress to the development of mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, has long been a focus of research.
He said: ‘I’m concerned with the biological underpinnings of stress, particularly interpersonal stress, which is thought to be a strong predictor of these mental disorders. So, oxytocin is a natural fit with my interests.
‘The next phase of research will begin to study oxytocin’s effects in those who are at high risk for developing clinical depression.’
Cardoso says reactions to oxytocin seem to be more variable depending on individual differences and contextual factors than most pharmaceuticals, so learning more about how the hormone operates can help scientists to figure out how it might be used in future treatments.
He added: ‘Previous studies have shown that natural oxytocin is higher in distressed people, but before this study nobody could say with certainty why that was the case.
‘In distressed people, oxytocin may improve one’s motivation to reach out to others for support. That idea is cause for a certain degree of excitement, both in the research community and for those who suffer from mood disorders.’