'Love Hormone' May Help Treat Personality Disorder

Fran Lowry

October 11, 2013

The neuropeptide oxytocin, which has been shown to reduce anxiety in social situations, enhance the recognition of facial expressions, and shift attention from negative to positive information, may decrease social-threat hypersensitivity in women with borderline personality disorder.

"This is the first study, to our knowledge, to reveal beneficial effects of intranasally administered oxytocin on facial threat processing in female borderline patients," the authors, led by Katja Bertsch, PhD, University of Heidelberg, in Germany, write.

The study was published in the October issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Intranasal oxytocin has been shown to improve facial recognition and shift attention from negative social information. In this study, the authors sought to see whether the neuropeptide would benefit women with borderline personality disorder.

The researchers administered 26 IU of oxytocin or a placebo intranasally in a double-blind design to 40 women with a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and 41 healthy women between the ages of 18 and 36 years.

The women undertook an emotion classification task 45 minutes after receiving oxytocin or placebo.

The investigators then compared the number and duration of initial eye movements, manual response latencies, and amygdala activation between groups by combining eye tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The investigators found that the patients with borderline personality disorder showed more and faster initial fixation changes than healthy women and had more saccades to the eyes of angry faces, combined with greater amygdala activation in response to angry faces, compared with the control group.

These abnormal behavioral and neural patterns were normalized after oxytocin administration, the authors report.

The study findings suggest that patients with borderline personality disorder show a hypersensitivity to social threat in early reflexive stages of information processing, commented Eric Hollander, MD, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Montefiore Medical Center, New York City, in an accompanying editorial.

Dr. Hollander suggests combining therapeutic agents that enhance oxytocin signaling with psychosocial interventions aimed at teaching social skills and social decision making for patients with borderline personality disorder and perhaps other diagnoses such as depression.

"Such combination treatments might be most important for individuals with early-life vulnerability of this system and/or individuals with genetic vulnerability of this system," he concludes.

Dr. Bertsch and her colleagues report no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Hollander reports receiving research grants from the Simons Foundation, NARSAD, NIMH, NINDS, the Orphan Products Division of the FDA, Roche, Transcept, Coronado, and Forest; consulting for Roche, Coronado, and Transcept; and having intellectual property involving memantine, oxytocin, and fluoxetine in autism.

Am J Psychiatry. 2013;170:1169-1177, 1086-1089. Abstract, Editorial


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