A new study by a team of British and Korean scientists suggests that the answer to anorexia could lie within the hormone oxytocin, a chemical released by the brain during affectionate activities such as hugging, touching and orgasm. Often known as the “love hormone” due to these associations, oxytocin is thought to play a central role in the brain by creating trust, emotional ties and through the recognition of social habits. As the symptoms of anorexia nervosa can often stem from feelings of insecurity, social awkwardness, obsessive tendencies and lack of trust or understanding of emotional ties, doses of the hormone could potentially provide a ground-breaking solution to the illness.
The recent findings from two separate studies found that oxytocin did two things: in the first study, oxytocin was found to alter patient reactions to faces expressing anger or disgust; in the second experiment, the drug led to patients being less likely to fixate on negative ideas concerning food and body image. With the first study, the reactions of a group of 31 anorexia patients and 33 healthy patients were monitored while they were shown a series of pictures with faces expressing negative emotions. In the second study, the same groups of people were presented with images of a variety of high- and low-calorie foods and different body shapes and weights and their responses to these images noted. A further four-week study conducted in Australia found that patients given oxytocin were less likely to be concerned about weight and image perceptions. The results were published in the journals Psychoneuroendocrinology and PLOS ONE; however, the research is still ongoing and it has been stressed by both the research teams and the eating disorder charity, Beat, that the results are still a long way off from providing a real or effective treatment for the mental illness. Prof. Janet Treasure of Kings College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, who led both studies, highlights the fact that while the results are exciting and provide great potential for further research, more testing is needed, in greater numbers and in a greater ethnic diversity before any concrete conclusions can be drawn.
Despite this, the effect of oxytocin in both studies was found to have a stronger impact on those anorexics who already displayed symptoms such as social anxiety or communication difficulties, a finding that ties in with previous research concerning the drug. Interestingly, Oxytocin has already been suggested as a remedy for social anxiety and as a potential treatment for certain symptoms of autism. In a 1998 study, researchers found that autistic children displayed considerably smaller amounts of oxytocin in their blood plasma. These findings were then consolidated by another study in 2003 which administered oxytocin intravenously to autism sufferers and discovered that it led to a decrease in autism-specific repetitive behaviours. In 2007, it was also reported that doses of oxytocin could assist autistic adults in comprehending the social significance and emotive nature of vocal inflection.
Given that anorexia affects roughly 1 in every 150 girls in the UK and has the highest death rate of any mental illness in the country with its numbers rising every year, research into methods of treatment or possible cures is extremely welcome. The disease is characterized by self-starvation, dramatic weight loss and distorted body image with a diagnosis being made when a person weighs 15 percent less than their ideal weight. Although anorexia literally means “loss of appetite,” there are often more complex reasons for the weight loss as many sufferers obtain an irrational fear of food or gaining weight. Anorexia nervosa can often lead to complications due to such low body mass, including growth retardation, brittle bones, puberty delay or arrest as well as various neurological disorders such as tremors and seizures.
Yet these trials are also significant as they mark an effort to explore more pharmacological methods of treatment for anorexia instead of purely psychotherapy-based solutions. As Leanne Thorndyke of Beat comments, “there is much that still needs to be understood about the biological basis for eating disorders.” Due to the fact that the causes of anorexia nervosa are still largely unknown, treatment for the illness is just as limited in terms of knowledge. Psychotherapy, nutritional coaching and certain antidepressant medication are the most common methods of treating the disease, thus this pioneering research is part of a wider approach to try and understand the mental illness as a physical disorder and to treat it accordingly.
By Rhona Scullion