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Could 'love hormone' oxytocin help anorexics?

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The brain chemical associated with intimate bonding, oytocin, might help treat mental health problems like anorexia, according to British and Korean researchers.

A new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that oxytocin alters how anorexic people relate to images of food - suggesting that it might be a viable way to help these individuals overcome obsessive behavior when it comes to diet and eating.

Oxytocin lowers anxiety, reduces stress

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body that is released during acts of bonding, like sexual encounters, breasfeeding, hugging, or cuddling. Some studies have shown that synthesized oxytocin can help to relieve social anxiety in people with autism.

The current research included two studies. The first analyzed 31 patients with anorexia and 33 control subjects who were either given oxytocin or a placebo. After taking either the oxytocin or the placebo, the participants were asked to observe images that related to weight, food and body shapes. As the images were shown, researchers recorded how quickly the subjects identified the pictures. Focusing on more negative images, like high-calorie foods or body shapes that were larger or fatter, was associated with identifying the images more quickly, the team found. The anorexic subjects taking oxytocin, however, were less likely to focus on images of "bad" food and fat bodies.

In the second study, the same participants were given either the same dose of oxytocin or the same placebo. They were then tested for reactions to different facial expressions, like anger, happiness or disgust. The patients who took oxytocin were less likely to focus on negative facial expressions, the researchers observed.

"Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape and negative emotions," said study author Youl-Ri Kim, a professor at Inje University in Seoul, South Korea.

Researchers say it's too soon to draw conclusions

Janet Treasure, study investigator and professor at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, said that while the results are "hugely exciting," more research is needed to assess how oxytocin might work as an anorexia treatment.

"Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness," Treasure said. "By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems."

Source: Chicago Tribune

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