Love hormone oxytocin could be a game changer for BDD patients

Oxytocin, known as the love hormone, could play a key role in treating the debilitating psychiatric illness body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) when used as a nasal spray.

New research from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Swinburne University of Technology showed that when BDD patients used oxytocin as a nasal spray – allowing it to enter the brain – their abnormal brain patterns changed to resemble that of the healthy control group.

Dr Izelle Labuschagne, a neuroscientist and research fellow in the Cognition and Emotion Research Centre at ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences, said the research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, could change the way people affected by BDD are treated.

“MRI scans showed that when we administered this hormone as a nasal spray to patients with BDD, we were able to restore their brain function to normal levels using just a single dose,” Dr Labuschagne said.

“This study is the first to show that oxytocin has neurobiological benefits and can be therapeutic for people with BDD. It helps us to understand the underlying mechanisms of the disorder and could lead to new treatment approaches for BDD as well as other related mental health conditions such as body image disorders, eating disorders and social anxiety.”

Body dysmorphic disorder is a psychiatric condition that leads people to adopt extremely distorted negative beliefs about their appearances - seeing themselves to be ugly, malformed, misshapen or hideous. The degree of concern and distress they may feel about their appearance is vastly out of proportion to any perceived physical “defect” and does not reflect the reality of how they appear to others.

Study lead Dr Sally Grace, from ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences, said areas of the brain affected by oxytocin included the amygdala and temporal lobe which control emotional processing of visual information.

“Because of this, oxytocin may be important in retraining the distorted visual perceptions of appearance in people with BDD,” Dr Grace said.

Sometimes called the love hormone, oxytocin plays a significant role in bonding behaviours. It also plays a crucial role in childbirth and helps with male reproduction. 

“Oxytocin is a powerful hormone produced in the brain which promotes positive behaviours,” Dr Labuschagne said.

“People with BDD have significant social deficits including a bias in how they think others perceive their appearance, so it made sense for us to put the two together. Coming up with new treatments for BDD is important because there isn’t much out there that helps.”

Dr Labuschagne said the disorder, seen in both men and women, affects a high number of young people.

“BDD is often associated with depression and anxiety, especially social anxiety, so they may also isolate themselves because they are worried about people’s judgements and their appearance,” she said.

“People with BDD have a constant preoccupation and obsession with appearance.  Most spend a significant proportion of their day, sometimes up to 10 hours, obsessing about their appearance. They will either spend time in front of a mirror, trying to alter what they don’t like, or they may camouflage themselves by wearing certain clothes.”

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