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, it’s the first to analyze oxytocin’s 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 others’ 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.
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