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"Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties, which often start in their early teenage years before the onset of the illness," senior study author Janet Treasure, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, in England, said in a university news release.
"These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia," Treasure said. "By using [the hormone] oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients."
Oxytocin is sometimes called the "love hormone." It's released during bonding activities like childbirth and sex, and researchers have linked artificial forms of it to lowering anxiety in people with autism.
In the new study, researchers gave oxytocin or a placebo, via nasal spray, to 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy "control" patients. They all were asked to look at sequences of images relating to different types of food, and different body shapes and weights. 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 quickly.
After taking oxytocin, the anorexic patients appeared to be less obsessed about images of food and obesity, the researchers said. The study did not, however, prove a cause-and-effect link between oxytocin and the decreased feelings of obsession.
"This is early stage research with a small number of participants, but it's hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment could have," Treasure said. "We need much larger trials on more diverse populations before we can start to make a difference in how patients are treated."
The study appears in the March 12 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
-- Randy Dotinga
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