The effect of oxytocin on attention to angry and happy faces in chronic depression

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Background: Chronic depression is characterized by a high degree of early life trauma, psychosocial impairment, and deficits in social cognition. Undisturbed recognition and processing of facial emotions are basic prerequisites for smooth social interactions. Intranasal application of the neuropeptide oxytocin has been reported to enhance emotion recognition in neuropsychiatric disorders and healthy individuals. We therefore investigated whether oxytocin modulates attention to emotional faces in patients with chronic depression. Methods: In this double-blind, randomized, controlled study, 43 patients received a single dose of oxytocin or placebo nasal spray and were tested while fulfilling a facial dot probe task. We assessed reaction times to neutral probes presented at the location of one of two faces depicting happy, angry, or neutral expressions as a prime. Results: When comparing reaction times to the congruent (prime and probe at the same location) with incongruent presentation of facial emotions, neither the placebo nor oxytocin group showed an attentional preference for emotional facial expressions in terms of a threat bias. However, oxytocin treatment did reveal two specific effects: it generally reduced the allocation of attention towards angry facial expressions, and it increased sustained attention towards happy faces, specifically under conditions of heightened awareness, i.e. trials with longer primes. Conclusions: We investigated a heterogeneous group of medicated male and female patients. We conclude that oxytocin does modulate basic factors of facial emotion processing in chronic depression. Our findings encourage further investigations assessing the therapeutic potential of oxytocin in chronic depression. Trial registration:EUDRA-CT 2010-020956-69. Date registered: 23 February 2011.




Domes, G., Normann, C., & Heinrichs, M. (2016). The effect of oxytocin on attention to angry and happy faces in chronic depression. BMC Psychiatry, 16(1).

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