MUSC researchers link oxytocin to enhanced socialization, bonding

Megan Fink

Oct. 18, 2010

MUSC researchers link oxytocin to enhanced socialization, bonding

Dose of 'love drug' changes how depressed patientsí brains process social cues

CHARLESTON -- A brain imaging study conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) shows that a single dose of intra-nasal oxytocin, which is important in maternal bonding and attachment and can relieve anxiety, may promote engaged social interactions in depressed individuals. The study was lead by Ziad Nahas, M.D., at MUSC in collaboration with Dr. Jaak Panksepp from Washington State University and Dr. David Pincus from SUMMA Health in Akron, OH.

This is the first study to look at the effects of oxytocin on brain activity in unmedicated depressed individuals and to compare it to healthy controls. In addition, itís the first to analyze oxytocinís influence on brain activity while performing a mental task developed specifically to examine the mental attribution of emotions.

Subjects were asked to infer the mental state of a person from the expression in their eyes; a test called "Reading the Mind in the Eyes." During this task, depressed patients displayed greater activity in the area of the brain associated with instinctive and primary emotions. After inhaling the oxytocin, depressed patients appeared to call on more abstract regions to process this task.

"A hallmark of depression is how disconnected the patients feel from their social milieu" said Nahas. "The patients in our study seemed much more reactive and instinctive in their assessments of othersí mental state. This changed when we gave them oxytocin as if it helped their brain recruit into a wider possibilities. Their brain activities started resembling our healthy subjects".

Since only a single dose was administered, it is not known what role oxytocin may have in clinically treating depressive symptoms. Findings support the idea that manipulating the brain in processing social tasks allows it to be less self-referential. The next step is to study oxytocin over several weeks in clinical settings and see if it can help treat depression and anxiety symptoms.

The study appears in Frontiers in Psychiatry and was funded by the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.

About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, The Medical University of South Carolina is the oldest medical school in the South. Today, MUSC continues the tradition of excellence in education, research, and patient care. MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and residents, and has nearly 11,000 employees, including 1,500 faculty members. As the largest non-federal employer in Charleston, the university and its affiliates have collective annual budgets in excess of $1.7 billion. MUSC operates a 750-bed medical center, which includes a nationally recognized Children's Hospital, the Ashley River Tower (cardiovascular, digestive disease, and surgical oncology), and a leading Institute of Psychiatry. For more information on academic information or clinical services, visit or