By Maureen Salamon
If all we had to do was sniff some oxytocin whenever we needed a confidence boost, our daily lives would undoubtedly improve. But it’s not that simple, although the hormone has been shown in recent studies to improve social skills in certain situations.
A September 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science indicated that oxytocin helped people who felt shy and awkward to improve their social skills. Led by Jennifer Bartz, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, researchers found that oxytocin appeared helpful only for those who are less socially proficient.
A group of 27 healthy adult men were given oxytocin or a placebo and then tested on their ability to think through social situations. The men watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their lives, rating how they thought the people in the videos were feeling. Those who had scored low on the social competency test and had taken oxytocin scored higher in the video test than those who had poor social competency and took the placebo.
But the men who initially scored high on the social competency test didn’t seem at all affected by the oxytocin, researchers said, suggesting the hormone didn’t have much influence on those who already have great social and relational skills.
For those with autism, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in communication and social relationships, oxytocin seems to significantly improve their ability to interact with others. A February 2010 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noting that prior research had indicated that natural oxytocin levels are lower in those with autism, said the results showed it also reduces autistic individuals’ fear of others.
The scientists administered oxytocin to 13 autistic patients and observed their social behavior during ball games and visual tests designed to identify the ability to recognize faces expressing different feelings.
They also measured the patients’ degree of attentiveness to social signals by asking them to look at series of photos of faces. Placebo patients looked at the mouth or away from the photo, while oxytocin patients looked at the faces, and it was even possible to see an increase in the number of times they looked specifically in the eyes of the faces in the photos.
“It seems to take impaired people to a normal baseline – but you don’t get north of that,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego. “It’s tricky with autism because it’s such a devastating illness. I would hate for oxytocin to have the broad shoulders to be an expected cure for it. Maybe it can be part of an early intervention program.”