Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the “love hormone.” It plays a significant role in social bonding, and recent studies have shown that the hormone can help people with autism and schizophrenia to better interact with others. But new research suggests that, for healthy young adults, too much oxytocin can result in oversensitivity to the emotions of others.
This is according to a study recently published in the journal Emotion.
Researchers from Concordia University in Canada, led by Christopher Cardoso, recruited 82 healthy adults who had no signs of autism, schizophrenia or any related conditions.
Half of the participants were required to self-administer a 24 IU dose of intranasal oxytocin, while the rest of the subjects were given a placebo.
The participants were then asked to carry out an emotional identification accuracy test. This required them to compare a variety of facial expressions that were showing different emotional states.
The researchers say they were not surprised to find that the participants who had taken the oxytocin reported seeing a greater intensity of emotion in the faces, compared with the subjects who had taken the placebo.
According to the investigators, some psychologists prescribe oxytocin off-label for patients who suffer from mild social issues, such as anxiety before a job interview.
But Cardoso says their findings suggest that this could present other problems for the patient:
“Many psychologists initially thought that oxytocin could be an easy fix in overcoming these worries.
Our study proves that the hormone ramps up innate social reasoning skills, resulting in an emotional oversensitivity that can be detrimental in those who don’t have any serious social deficiencies.”
For example, Cardoso says that if a manager at work is grimacing because they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a person with increased oxytocin levels may think the manager is negatively reacting to what they are saying instead, which may potentially cause issues in the workplace.
“That’s why we’re cautioning against giving oxytocin to people who don’t really need it,” Cardoso adds.
A video of Cardoso explaining the link between oxytocin and emotional sensitivity is displayed below:
The researchers note that oxytocin does have benefits for those who have severe social problems. A recent study suggested that the hormone can activate social brain regions in children with autism.
But Cardoso warns that, for some people, the social benefits oxytocin presents “may be countered by unintended negative consequences, like being too sensitive to emotional cues in everyday life.”
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that oxytocin stimulated the reward center in the male brain, which researchers say increases partner attractiveness and strengthens monogamy.