Researchers have found that oxytocin, known as the bonding hormone, can also reduce fear.
Scientists from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Bonn, the German Cancer Research Center, and Chengdu University worked together to research its effects on the fear response.
They took brain scans of 62 subjects while they looked at photos. When 70% of the pictures appeared, each subject was given a short, sharp electric shock to the hand. (Let’s hope they were paid for this.) The brain scan showed that this activated the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear, in anticipation of further pain.
Half the subjects were then given a nasal spray of oxytocin, while the other 31 got a placebo. Then they were shown the same pictures as before, only without the shocks this time. The men who’d been given oxytocin had far less active amygdalas than the other group, suggesting it can inhibit fear – and that people who experience a lot of anxiety and dread may have naturally low levels of the hormone. (Low oxytocin has previously been linked to feeling anti-social.)
The scientists now hope that oxytocin could provide a useful treatment for people with anxiety disorders. Because this technique works to address the physical root of fear, it might also prove more effective long-term than traditional therapies which involve exposing someone to what they’re afraid of until it no longer triggers a response, which can take a long time and doesn’t address the source of the problem.
As Professor Hurlemann from the University of Bonn Hospital points out, it could also promote bonding between a patient and their therapist. But more research, including clinical trials, is needed before the nervous among us will be able to pick it up on prescription.
Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.
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