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'Love hormone' could provide treatment for anorexia

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A hormone naturally released during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding could provide a new treatment for anorexia, according to two pieces of research.

Oxytocin − dubbed the “love hormone” or the “cuddle chemical” − has been shown to alter anorexics’ tendencies to fixate on images of high calorie foods and larger body shapes, a study has shown.

A further piece of research, carried out by the same study authors as the first, has found that the hormone changed anorexia patients’ responses to images of angry and disgusted faces.

“Oxytocin reduces unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions”

Youl-Ri Kim

Research, in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, revealed that patients with anorexia shown images of food and fat body parts reduced their focus on images of food and fat body parts after being given oxytocin using a nasal spray.

The same 31 participants in a study, published in the journal PLOS One, testing their reactions to facial expressions such as anger, disgust and happiness, were shown to be less likely to focus on “disgust” faces. They were also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces.

Professor Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, and lead author on both studies, says: “Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients’ unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust.

“There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia. Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia.”

“It’s hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment could have”

Janet Treasure

Professor Janet Treasure, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, was senior author for both studies. She said: “Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness.

“These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients.”

She added: “This is early stage research with a small number of participants, but it’s hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment could have.

“We need much larger trials, on more diverse populations, before we can start to make a difference to how patients are treated.”

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