Oxytocin is a nonapeptide that helps alleviate contractions during childbirth and stimulates milk production for breast-feeding. Oxytocin also affects key regions of the brain that influence social behaviors. Recent studies have shown that oxytocin increases certain types of eye movement and negative evaluation of emotions in people with autism. Research has also shown that autistic children who are given oxytocin are more trusting of others and engage in social behaviors more willingly. Social impairments are among the many symptoms of schizophrenia as well. Individuals who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and even immediate family members without the illness, have difficulty accurately perceiving the emotional states of those around them. The positive effects of oxytocin on autistic children prompted B. B. Averbeck of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland to conduct a study exploring how oxytocin would influence social deficits in individuals with schizophrenia.
Averbeck enlisted 30 clients with schizophrenia and 29 healthy individuals for the study. The participants were first required to analyze facial emotions of pictures presented to them. Then, after receiving oxytocin, they were asked to review the faces and attempt to accurately identify the emotions again. The study revealed that the clients with schizophrenia made more errors than the controls. However, after receiving the oxytocin, the schizophrenic participants showed dramatic improvement. Difficulty in properly assessing others’ emotions can cause significant social impairment for individuals with autism and schizophrenia. Misread emotions can lead to anger, frustration, fear, and even paranoia in these individuals. Being able to correctly gauge the emotions of others can substantially improve their ability to interact harmoniously with others and increase their social functioning. Because the results of this study were evident after only 3 weeks of oxytocin use, Averbeck believes more extensive research should be conducted to further the exploration of the positive effects of oxytocin. Averbeck believes this study provides clinical hope to those with schizophrenia and autism, and added, “This offers the potential in the future of integrating oxytocin treatment with psychological therapy using the window of opportunity created by the acute oxytocin effects.”
Averbeck, B.B., Bobin, T., Evans, S., Shergill, S. S. Emotion Recognition and Oxytocin in Patients with Schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine 42.2 (2012): 259-66. Print.
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