Oxytocin Facilitation of Emotional Empathy Is Associated With Increased Eye Gaze Toward the Faces of Individuals in Emotional Contexts.
ABSTRACT: One of the most robust effects of intranasal oxytocin treatment is its enhancement of emotional empathy responses across cultures to individuals displaying emotions in realistic contexts in the Multifaceted Empathy Task (MET). However, it is not established if this effect of oxytocin on emotional empathy is due to altered visual attention toward different components of the stimulus pictures or an enhanced empathic response. In the current randomized placebo-controlled within-subject experiment on 40 healthy male individuals, we both attempted a further replication of emotional empathy enhancement by intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) and used eye-tracking measures to determine if this was associated by altered visual attention toward different components of the picture stimuli (background context, human face, and body posture). Results replicated previous findings of enhanced emotional empathy in response to both negative and positive stimuli and that this was associated with an increased proportion of time viewing the faces of humans in the pictures and a corresponding decrease in that toward the rest of the body and/or background context. Overall, our findings suggest that enhanced emotional empathy following oxytocin administration is due to increased attention to the faces of others displaying emotions and away from other contextual and social cues. Clinical Trial Registration: www.ClinicalTrials.gov Oxytocin Modulates Eye Gaze Behavior During Social Processing; registration ID: NCT03293511; URL: https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03293511.
Project description:A key functional effect of intranasal oxytocin with potential therapeutic relevance for autism-spectrum disorder is its reported facilitation of attention towards social stimuli, notably the eye region of faces. In the current randomized placebo-controlled within-subject experiment on 40 healthy males, we investigated the robustness of this facilitation of attention by intranasal oxytocin (24IU) towards social cues. Eye-tracking measures of preference for dynamic and static social vs. non-social stimuli were taken in four different paradigms where autistic individuals tend to exhibit reduced interest in social stimuli. Additionally, we investigated whether oxytocin increases attention towards the eyes relative to other salient face regions in an emotional face paradigm. Results showed that the time spent viewing both dynamic and static social vs. non-social stimuli was negatively associated with trait autism and significantly increased following intranasal oxytocin. For face stimuli, oxytocin primarily increased gaze towards the eyes of fearful expression faces but not for other face emotions. Overall, our findings demonstrate that oxytocin significantly shifts gaze preference towards social vs. non-social stimuli and to the eyes of fearful faces. Importantly, oxytocin appears generally to shift attention more towards salient social stimuli of particular relevance in the context of autism providing further support for its potential therapeutic use in autism-spectrum disorder.
Project description:Endogenous oxytocin has been associated with different aspects of social cognition in healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia. In this pilot study, we investigated the relationship between plasma oxytocin and oxytocin level changes induced by empathy-eliciting, attachment-related movie scenes with correlates of cognitive and emotional empathy in patients and healthy controls. The Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET) and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) were administered to patients with schizophrenia (N = 35, 12 females) and healthy controls (N = 35, 12 females) to estimate dimensions of cognitive and emotional empathy. Peripheral basal oxytocin concentrations and oxytocin responses to movie-based emotional stimuli were assessed using radioimmunoassay with sample extraction. In patients, induced oxytocin level changes were inversely correlated with MET cognitive empathy regarding negative emotional states. Controlling for non-social cognition and age revealed a significant negative association between basal oxytocin levels and MET cognitive empathy for positive emotions. In healthy subjects, oxytocin reactivity was inversely correlated with the IRI subscale "fantasy". Oxytocin was not related to any measure of emotional empathy. A hyper-reactive oxytocin system might be linked to impaired cognitive empathy as a part of a dysfunctional regulative circuit of attachment-related emotions and interpersonal stressors or threats by attribution of meaning. Healthy adults with a disposition to identify with fictional characters showed lower oxytocin reactivity, possibly indicating familiarity with movie-based stimuli. The oxytocinergic system may be involved in maladaptive coping mechanisms in the framework of impaired mentalizing and associated dysfunctional responses to interpersonal challenges in schizophrenia.
Project description:The neuropeptide oxytocin has recently been shown to modulate covert attention shifts to emotional face cues and to improve discrimination of masked facial emotions. These results suggest that oxytocin modulates facial emotion processing at early perceptual stages prior to full evaluation of the emotional expression. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine whether oxytocin alters neural responses to backwardly masked angry and happy faces while controlling for attention to the eye vs the mouth region. Intranasal oxytocin administration reduced amygdala reactivity to masked emotions when attending to salient facial features, ie, the eyes of angry faces and the mouth of happy faces. In addition, oxytocin decreased neural responses within the fusiform gyrus and brain stem areas, as well as functional coupling between the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus specifically for threat cues from the eyes. Effects of oxytocin on brain activity were not attributable to differences in behavioral performance, as oxytocin had no impact on mere emotion detection. Our results suggest that oxytocin attenuates neural correlates of early arousal by threat signals from the eye region. As reduced threat sensitivity may increase the likelihood of engaging in social interactions, our findings may have important implications for clinical states of social anxiety.
Project description:Oxytocin has been shown to affect several aspects of human social cognition, including facial emotion processing. There is also evidence that social stimuli (such as eye-contact) can effectively modulate endogenous oxytocin levels. In the present study we directly tested whether intranasal oxytocin administration and pre-treatment with social stimuli had similar effects on face processing at the behavioral level. Subjects (N = 52 healthy adult males) were presented with a set of faces with expressions of different valence (negative, neutral, positive) following different types of pretreatment (oxytocin-OT or placebo-PL and social interaction-Soc or no social interaction-NSoc, N = 13 in each) and were asked to rate all faces for perceived emotion and trustworthiness. On the next day subjects' recognition memory was tested on a set of neutral faces and additionally they had to again rate each face for trustworthiness and emotion. Subjects in both the OT and the Soc pretreatment group (as compared to the PL and to the NSoc groups) gave higher emotion and trustworthiness scores for faces with negative emotional expression. Moreover, 24 h later, subjects in the OT and Soc groups (unlike in control groups) gave lower trustworthiness scores for previously negative faces, than for faces previously seen as emotionally neutral or positive. In sum these results provide the first direct evidence of the similar effects of intranasal oxytocin administration and social stimulation on the perception of negative facial emotions as well as on the delayed recall of negative emotional information.
Project description:3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, 'ecstasy') releases serotonin and norepinephrine. MDMA is reported to produce empathogenic and prosocial feelings. It is unknown whether MDMA in fact alters empathic concern and prosocial behavior. We investigated the acute effects of MDMA using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET), dynamic Face Emotion Recognition Task (FERT) and Social Value Orientation (SVO) test. We also assessed effects of MDMA on plasma levels of hormones involved in social behavior using a placebo-controlled, double-blind, random-order, cross-over design in 32 healthy volunteers (16 women). MDMA enhanced explicit and implicit emotional empathy in the MET and increased prosocial behavior in the SVO test in men. MDMA did not alter cognitive empathy in the MET but impaired the identification of negative emotions, including fearful, angry and sad faces, in the FERT, particularly in women. MDMA increased plasma levels of cortisol and prolactin, which are markers of serotonergic and noradrenergic activity, and of oxytocin, which has been associated with prosocial behavior. In summary, MDMA sex-specifically altered the recognition of emotions, emotional empathy and prosociality. These effects likely enhance sociability when MDMA is used recreationally and may be useful when MDMA is administered in conjunction with psychotherapy in patients with social dysfunction or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Project description: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.
Project description:Dogs have been shown to excel in reading human social cues, including facial cues. In the present study we used eye-tracking technology to further study dogs' face processing abilities. It was found that dogs discriminated between human facial regions in their spontaneous viewing pattern and looked most to the eye region independently of facial expression. Furthermore dogs played most attention to the first two images presented, afterwards their attention dramatically decreases; a finding that has methodological implications. Increasing evidence indicates that the oxytocin system is involved in dogs' human-directed social competence, thus as a next step we investigated the effects of oxytocin on processing of human facial emotions. It was found that oxytocin decreases dogs' looking to the human faces expressing angry emotional expression. More interestingly, however, after oxytocin pre-treatment dogs' preferential gaze toward the eye region when processing happy human facial expressions disappears. These results provide the first evidence that oxytocin is involved in the regulation of human face processing in dogs. The present study is one of the few empirical investigations that explore eye gaze patterns in naïve and untrained pet dogs using a non-invasive eye-tracking technique and thus offers unique but largely untapped method for studying social cognition in dogs.
Project description:The hormone oxytocin has been hypothesized to influence the emotional dimension of pain. This randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study explored whether intranasal oxytocin and emotional context can affect heat pain perception in 30 healthy male volunteers. After receiving 36 IU oxytocin or placebo, participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) during which noxious and non-noxious thermode heat stimuli were applied. Simultaneously, scenes from the International Affective Pictures System (IAPS) with positive, neutral, and negative emotional valence were shown. Heat intensity and unpleasantness ratings were obtained. The activity of whole-brain correlates of heat processing was quantified via multi-voxel pattern analysis. We observed no appreciable main effects of oxytocin on ratings or neural pain correlates. Effects of emotional picture valence on ratings were smaller than reported in previous studies. Nevertheless, oxytocin was found to significantly enhance the influence of picture valence on unpleasantness ratings at noxious heat levels. No corresponding changes in whole-brain correlates of heat intensity processing were found. Our study provides evidence that intranasal oxytocin increases the effects of emotional context on the subjective unpleasantness of experimental heat pain. Future studies are needed to determine whether this effect can be utilized in clinical settings.
Project description:MDMA (± 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, 'ecstasy') is used recreationally, reportedly because it increases feelings of empathy, sociability, and interpersonal closeness. One line of evidence suggests that MDMA produces these effects by releasing oxytocin, a peptide involved in social bonding. In the current study, we investigated the acute effects of MDMA and oxytocin on social and emotional processing in healthy human volunteers. MDMA users (N = 65) participated in a 4-session, within-between-subjects study in which they received oral MDMA (0.75, 1.5 mg/kg), intranasal oxytocin (20 or 40 IU), or placebo under double-blind conditions. The primary outcomes included measures of emotion recognition and sociability (desire to be with others). Cardiovascular and subjective effects were also assessed. As expected, MDMA dose-dependently increased heart rate and blood pressure and feelings of euphoria (eg, 'High' and 'Like Drug'). On measures of social function, MDMA impaired recognition of angry and fearful facial expressions, and the larger dose (1.5 mg/kg) increased desire to be with others, compared with placebo. Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.
Project description:The hypothalamic neuropeptide oxytocin has been reported to enhance emotional empathy in association with reduced amygdala activation, although to date studies have not investigated empathy for individuals expressing self-conscious, moral emotions which engage mentalizing as well as emotion processing networks. In the current randomized, double-blind placebo controlled functional MRI experiment in 70 male and female subjects we have therefore investigated the effects of intranasal oxytocin (40 IU) on behavioral and neural responses to embarrassment experienced by others or by self. Results showed that oxytocin significantly increased ratings of both empathic and self-embarrassment and concomitantly decreased skin conductance response, activation in the right amygdala and insula but not in the medial prefrontal cortex. The amygdala effects of oxytocin were associated with the magnitude of the skin conductance response and trait anxiety scores. Overall our results demonstrate that oxytocin increases ratings of self- and other embarrassment and that this is associated with reduced physiological arousal and activity in neural circuits involved in emotional arousal. The neural effects of oxytocin were more pronounced stronger in individuals with high trait anxiety suggesting that it may particularly reduce their anxiety in embarrassing situations.