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Anorexia May Be Treated By "Cuddle Hormone"

Update Date: Mar 13, 2014 07:59 PM EDT

The love hormone does more than make you want to cuddle after sex. It can also help treat eating disorders, according to new research.

Scientists found that oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone" works by altering anorexic patients' tendencies to fixate on images of high calorie foods, and larger body shape. Researchers said the latest findings support previous studies showing that oxytocin changed patients' responses to angry and disgusted faces.

The findings are important because many girls and women suffer eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, which is one of the leading causes of mental health related deaths.

"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," senior author Professor Janet Treasure from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry said in a news release.

Researchers conducted two studies. The first study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, involved 31 patients and 33 healthy controls. The patients were given either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo via nasal spray. Participants were asked to look at a series of images related to food (high and low calorie), body shape (fat and thin), and weight (scales). 

Researchers calculated how quickly participants identified the images. Researchers said the point of the study was to identify how participants felt about different images. They explained that people ad a tendency to focus on the negative images, they would identify them more rapidly. The test was done before and after taking the nasal spray.

The findings revealed that anorexics reduced their "attentional bias" on pictures of food and fat body parts. Furthermore, this effect was particularly pronounced in anorexics who had greater communication problems.

The second study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved the same participants. The second study was like the first study, but instead tested participants' reactions to facial expressions, such as anger, disgust or happiness. The findings revealed that anorexia patients who took a dose of oxytocin were less likely to focus on the "disgust" faces. They were also significantly less likely to avoid looking at angry faces.

"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," lead author of both studies Prof Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea, said in a news release.

 "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," Treasure added.

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