General News Research — 17 March 2014

Oxytocin, a brain chemical known as the “love hormone,” is showing promise as  a potential treatment for people with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa,  according to research by British and Korean scientists.

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.

Anorexia nervosa affects millions of people worldwide – including around 1  in 150 teenage girls in Britain, where it is one of the leading causes of mental  health-related deaths, both due to physical complications and suicide. While it  mostly affects girls and women the condition can also affect males.

As well as problems with food, eating and body shape, patients with anorexia  often have social difficulties, including anxiety and hypersensitivity to  negative emotions.bigstock-Waist-Away-599503

“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,” she said.

Oxytocin is a hormone released naturally in human bonding, including during  sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. As a synthesized product, it has been tested  as a treatment for various psychiatric disorders. Some studies have shown it has  benefits in lowering social anxiety in people with autism.

In the first of two studies, Treasure’s team analyzed 31 patients with  anorexia and 33 healthy controls who were given either oxytocin or a placebo.  Participants were asked before and after taking the drug or placebo to look at  images relating to weight, high and low calorie foods, and fat and thin body  shapes.

As images flashed up, the researchers measured how quickly participants  identified them. If they had a tendency to focus on the negative images, they  would identify them more rapidly.

The results, published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal, showed that  after taking oxytocin, anorexic patients reduced their focus on images of food  and fat bodies.

In a second study, published in Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE,  the researchers used the same participants, the same drug and placebo, but  tested reactions to facial expressions such as anger, disgust or happiness.  After taking a dose of oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to  focus on the “disgust” 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.

He said the result “hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking  treatment option for patients with anorexia.”

Treasure stressed the research was at an early stage, however, 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 participants before  oxytocin could considered for an approved treatment.

This article first appeared on ‘New York Daily News’ on 14 March 2014.

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