For quite some time, the hormone oxytocin has been popular for maintaining a connection in the mother-offspring relationship and also in sex partners. Now, it has also been considered anxiolytic. Medical scientists from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Bonn, along with their research partners from the University of Chengdu (China) and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, have successfully proven that this hormone enables you to overcome fear. According to Prof. Hurlemann, the research director, the anticipation of persistent fear subsides to a large extent under oxytocin’s influence.
The medical team tested 62 male subjects in good health by inducing fear conditioning. In the brain scanner, through video glasses, the participants were made to view photos, including human faces. They were given a brief electrical shock, by means of electrodes, for 70 percent of the pictures. This associated certain images with an anxiety emotion in the memory of the participants. The scientific team then employed two methods to establish that this coupling of a specific image and pain was in fact anchored in the participants’ brains. The anticipation of a shock was demonstrated by an increasing amount of cold sweat, which was calculated through skin conductivity. Moreover, the brain scans helped to confirm the fear areas in the brain were, at all times, predominantly active.
To study the effects of oxytocin, half the participants were given oxytocin through a nasal spray. The other half were given a placebo. Later, the extinction phase was initiated, in which the subjects were shown the exact images as many times as before but were no longer given any electrical shocks. In the participants who were given oxytocin, the amygdala, which is the center for fear in the brain, appeared to be generally less active as compared to the participants in the control group.
Although fear did increase at first, it then decreased to a greater degree in those participants who had taken oxytocin. This implied that oxytocin, in the beginning, supported the participants’ conscious impressions and, consequently, the response to the electrical shock. However, a few minutes later, the anxiolytic outcome to overcome fear prevailed successfully.
Scientists are hopeful that patients suffering from anxiety can be greatly helped with this attribute of oxytocin to overcome fear. Moreover, researchers deduce the hormone is most likely to facilitate the relationship between therapists and patients and accordingly, enhance the success of the therapy. However, it is yet to be illustrated by clinical studies.