Hormone oxytocin improves social cognition but only in less socially proficient individuals

Sep 21, 2010

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that the naturally-occurring hormone oxytocin selectively improves social cognitive abilities for less socially proficient individuals, but has little effect on those who are more socially proficient. The study was published today in Psychological Science.

Researchers at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University wanted to determine if oxytocin, popularly dubbed the "hormone of love," could have widespread benefit in making us more understanding of others. They conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over challenge, giving 27 healthy adult men oxytocin or a placebo delivered nasally. Participants then performed an empathic accuracy task in which they watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their life and rated how they thought the people in the videos were feeling.

Although all participants were healthy adults who did not have autism, the researchers looked at whether differences in social cognitive expertise affected response to oxytocin. Social competency was measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a common self-report instrument that predicts social cognitive performance. Researchers hypothesized that oxytocin and AQ would interact to predict social cognitive performance. Results showed that oxytocin improved empathic accuracy, but only in those individuals who were less socially proficient.

"Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathic and understanding of others," said Jennifer Bartz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. "Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient."

More socially proficient participants performed well on the empathic accuracy task regardless of whether they were on oxytocin or placebo. By contrast, less socially proficient participants performed poorly on placebo but significantly better on oxytocin. In fact, on oxytocin, their empathic accuracy performance was identical to that of the socially proficient participants.

"Our data show that oxytocin selectively improves social cognition in people who are less socially proficient, but had little impact on more socially proficient individuals," continued Dr. Bartz. "While more research is required, these results highlight the potential oxytocin holds for treating social deficits in people with disorders marked by deficits in social functioning like autism."

Dr. Bartz and her colleagues also received a grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal government stimulus package, to continue her research on the impact of beyond this study, specifically in adults with autism spectrum disorders.

Explore further: Family 'disconnect' drives young Singaporeans to suicide: charity

Provided by The Mount Sinai Hospital

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A hormone that enhances one's memory of happy faces

Jul 28, 2008

Oxytocin was originally studied as the "milk let-down factor," i.e., a hormone that was necessary for breast-feeding. However, there is increasing evidence that this hormone also plays an important role in social bonding ...

Hormone important in recognizing familiar faces

Jan 06, 2009

Oxytocin, a hormone involved in child-birth and breast-feeding, helps people recognize familiar faces, according to new research in the January 7 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Study participants who had one dose o ...

New paper on Oxytocin reveals why we are generous

Nov 07, 2007

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University has new research, and a paper, “Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans,” which will be published November 7, 2007 in PLoS ONE, the online, open-access journal ...

Recommended for you

Dyscalculia: Burdened by blunders with numbers

13 hours ago

Between 3 and 6% of schoolchildren suffer from an arithmetic-related learning disability. Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich now show that these children are also more likely to exhibit deficits ...

Free help for expecting and new mums at risk of depression

15 hours ago

With postnatal depression affecting almost one in seven women giving birth in Australia, QUT and the White Cloud Foundation have launched an innovative model of care to provide early access to treatment for expecting and ...

A blood test for suicide?

19 hours ago

Johns Hopkins researchers say they have discovered a chemical alteration in a single human gene linked to stress reactions that, if confirmed in larger studies, could give doctors a simple blood test to reliably predict a ...

User comments : 0