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Study Finds Love Hormone Increases Placebo Effect

Update Date: Oct 23, 2013 01:29 PM EDT

When people are in love, their bodies and minds start to react differently to varying stimuli. One study published in Nature found that when people are in love, their levels of the love hormone known as oxytocin, rise and can effectively reduce background clutter, which then allows the people to focus solely on one another. In a new study, researchers examined the effects of oxytocin on cognitive health.  They reported that oxytocin can enhance the effects of a placebo.

Placebos are used in control groups during studies. Oftentimes, participants taking a placebo pill might experience a placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs when the participants report feeling better because they believe that the drug is working, even if the drug is merely a sugar pill. Since people taking placeboes actually feel better despite the lack of drugs, researchers have been curious as to how the placebo effect works. In this study, the researchers set out to see if they could enhance the placebo effect with the help of chemicals.

The researchers, headed by Dr. Ulrike Bingel, a neurologist from the University Duisburg-Essen in Germany, examined 80 healthy male volunteers who were in their 20s. The researchers administered oxytocin nasal spray to half of the participants. The other half received a similar spray that contained only saline. After the spray, the researchers presented the participants with two creams. The researchers told the participants that first one was a powerful pain-reliever and the second one was a control. Both creams had no active ingredient in reality.

The team then applied one cream on one forearm and the second cream on the other arm. After 45 minutes, the team placed a hot probe onto the areas where the creams were and asked the participants to rate their pain levels from 0 to 100, 100 being extremely painful. The researchers found that the men who were given oxytocin rated the pain level of the arm with the pain-reliever cream around an average of 47 points. The same group of men stated that the other arm had a pain level of 59. The researchers noted that the saline group also experienced this placebo effect, but the difference in pain levels was just seven points.

"What oxytocin seems to have done is to make people trust the clinician and to believe what they are saying is true," Larry Young, the director of the Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition at Emory University, said according to HealthDay. "Oxytocin helps create a connection between one individual and another. When you're looking another person in the eyes and you're really caring about the other person there, you're releasing oxytocin."

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

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