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Oxytocin increases emotional but not cognitive empathy in men.

Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Keith Kendrick (pictured left) from the Babraham Institute working in collaboration with Clinical Psychiatrists at the University of Bonn in Germany has shown for the first time that intranasal spray treatment with the neuropeptide, oxytocin, increases emotional but not cognitive empathy in men.

The treatment, which increases concentrations of the peptide in the brain, markedly raised the intensity of empathic feelings reported by men in response to pictures showing others experiencing either strong positive or negative emotions, although only to the same higher levels found normally in women.  This oxytocin treatment also improved learning in situations where social (smiling or angry faces) but not non-social (red and green circles) feedback was given. Patients with a rare genetic disorder (Urbach-Wiethe disease) which results in damage to a key area in the brain involved in emotional responses, the amygdala, were impaired on these oxytocin-sensitive behaviours, and this region is known to contain numerous receptors for the peptide.

Oxytocin treatment therefore potentially offers an important way of increasing feelings of emotional empathy as well as enhancing learning in every day contexts involving guidance and reinforcement from others. This could benefit individuals suffering from impaired social and emotional responsivity in disorders such as autism, depression, schizophrenia or psychopathy. These findings have been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Professor Keith Kendrick originally discovered the importance of oxytocin for emotional bonds through his work on mother-lamb bonding in sheep at the Babraham Institute in the mid 1980s in collaboration with Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Barry Keverne (pictured right) from the University of Cambridge. In humans, oxytocin is also released at key times when social bonds are facilitated (birth, suckling, sex and touching) and over the last decade research from many groups has confirmed that its intranasal application promotes a variety of pro-social behaviours such as face recognition memory, trust and generosity as well as bonding. A recent paper by Angela Sirigu’s group in France has also reported enhanced responsiveness to social cues following oxytocin treatment in autistic individuals. Empathogenic drugs of abuse such as “ecstasy” appear to produce some of their prosocial effects by modulating oxytocin release, although it was unknown if oxytocin itself might act as an empathogen. Similarly, while it had been established that oxytocin promotes social recognition memory it was unknown whether it could improve general learning in the context of social reinforcement. This new double-blind study using 48 healthy male volunteers has now established that oxytocin does indeed have potent empathogenic effects in men and can also enhance general learning when social, but not non-social feedback is given. Importantly, the subjects used in the study were unable to determine whether they had received oxytocin or placebo treatments and those receiving oxytocin did not report any euphoric effects.   

Professor Kendrick said:

“It is incredibly satisfying to be able to translate our animal-based research which first established oxytocin’s importance for maternal behaviour and mother-offspring recognition and bonds into humans. While further human-based research is needed, the fact that simple intranasal treatments with this peptide can both markedly improve levels of emotional empathy and facilitate learning in response to guidance from others offers great therapeutic promise for individuals who have problems with social and emotional interactions with others”

He continued by saying:

“While our study was not originally designed to show differences between empathy in men and women, it is interesting that oxytocin treatment in men only raised emotional empathy levels to those seen normally in women. It will be important therefore to investigate whether oxytocin treatment can also enhance empathy in women. It was only the intensity of empathic feelings towards others that showed this large gender difference. Both men and women in our studies were equally able to correctly identify what emotions others were showing and this so called “cognitive empathy” component was unaffected by oxytocin".

Dr René Hurlemann, a clinical psychiatrist in the University of Bonn, and in whose laboratory the study was carried out, said:

“Our findings suggest important new therapeutic opportunities for using intranasal oxytocin in the treatment of a range of human social and affective disorders and we are in the process of starting further collaborative behavioural and brain imaging studies with Professor Kendrick to investigate this possibility.”

The research was funded by a German Research Foundation Grant.

The research article was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, 7th April, 2010 and has generated significant press interest, including a recent article by the BBC entitled: 'Cuddle hormone' makes men more empathetic'.

Posted on 03/05/2010

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