BreastfeedingOxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ released during childbirth and breastfeeding, could also provide treatment for anorexia nervosa according to new research.

The study by UK and Korean researchers, found that oxytocin alters anorexic patients’ tendencies to fixate on images of high calorie foods and larger body shape. The findings follow an earlier study by the same group showing that oxytocin changed patients’ responses to angry and disgusted faces.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and it has been estimated that 15-20% of sufferers will die prematurely from either complications or suicide. A recent study by King’s College London and University College London’s Institute of Child Health highlighted how eating disorders have increased by 15% since 2000.

Meanwhile, in January, the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed that hospital admissions for eating disorders have gone up 8% in the past year alone – of which 76% of cases were of anorexia.

Further reading: Hospital admissions for eating disorders up 8% in past year  

Oxytocin is a hormone released naturally during 'bonding', but as a synthesized product, it has been tested as a treatment for many psychiatric disorders, and has been shown to have benefits in lowering social anxiety in people with autism.

In the first study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy controls were given either a dose of oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, or a placebo. The participants were then asked to look at sequences of images relating to food (high and low calorie), body shape (fat and thin) and weight (scales). Once the images flashed on screen, the researchers measured how quickly participants identified the images. If they had a tendency to focus on the negative images, they would identify them more rapidly. The test was done before and after taking oxytocin or placebo.

After taking oxytocin, patients with anorexia reduced their focus on images of food and fat body parts. The effect of oxytocin was particularly strong in patients with anorexia who had greater communication problems.

The second study, published in PLOS ONE, involved the same participants. A similar test was done, before and after oxytocin or placebo, but this time testing the participants’ reactions to facial expressions, such as anger, disgust or happiness. After taking a dose of oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the ‘disgust’ faces. They were also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces and became simply vigilant to them.

Hugely exciting potential
Professor Janet Treasure from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and senior author on both studies, 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.”

Professor Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea and lead author on both studies, added: “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.”

But Professor Treasure added that while this treatment has “hugely exciting” potential, it is only early stage results. She called for much larger trials, on more diverse populations.