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PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
12-Mar-2014

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Contact: Seil Collins
seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk
44-207-848-5377
King's College London

'Love hormone' could provide new treatment for anorexia

Oxytocin, also known as the 'love hormone', could provide a new treatment for anorexia nervosa, according to new research by a team of British and Korean scientists.

The study, published today, found that oxytocin alters anorexic patients' tendencies to fixate on images of high calorie foods, and larger body shape. The findings follow an earlier study by the same group showing that oxytocin changed patients' responses to angry and disgusted faces.

Anorexia nervosa affects approximately 1 in 150 teenage girls in the UK and is one of leading causes of mental health related deaths, both through physical complications and suicide. As well as problems with food, eating and body shape, patients with anorexia often have social difficulties, including anxiety and hypersensitivity to negative emotions.

Professor Janet Treasure from King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry and senior author on both studies says: "Patients with anorexia have a range of social difficulties which often start in their early teenage years, before the onset of the illness. These social problems, which can result in isolation, may be important in understanding both the onset and maintenance of anorexia. By using oxytocin as a potential treatment for anorexia, we are focusing on some of these underlying problems we see in patients."

Oxytocin is a hormone released naturally during bonding, including sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. As a synthesized product, it has been tested as a treatment for many psychiatric disorders, and has been shown to have benefits in lowering social anxiety in people with autism.

In the first study (1), published today in Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31 patients with anorexia and 33 healthy controls were given either a dose of oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, or a placebo. The participants were then asked to look at sequences of images relating to food (high and low calorie), body shape (fat and thin), and weight (scales). Once the images flashed on screen, 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 rapidly. The test was done before and after taking oxytocin or placebo.

After taking oxytocin, patients with anorexia reduced their focus (or 'attentional bias') on images of food and fat body parts. The effect of oxytocin was particularly strong in patients with anorexia who had greater communication problems.

The second study (2), published in PLOS ONE, involved the same participants. A similar test was done, before and after oxytocin or placebo, but this time testing the participants' reactions to facial expressions, such as anger, disgust or happiness. After taking a dose of oxytocin, patients with anorexia were less likely to focus on the 'disgust' faces. They were also less likely to avoid looking at angry faces, and became simply vigilant to them.

Prof Youl-Ri Kim, from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea and lead author on both studies, says: "Our research shows that oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape, and negative emotions such as disgust. There is currently a lack of effective pharmacological treatments for anorexia. Our research adds important evidence to the increasing literature on oxytocin treatments for mental illnesses, and hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia."

Prof Treasure from King's, adds: "This is early stage research with a small number of participants, but it's hugely exciting to see the potential this treatment could have. We need much larger trials, on more diverse populations, before we can start to make a difference to how patients are treated."

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For interview(s) with the author(s) please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, (+44) 0207 848 5377 / (+44) 07718 697 176 / seil.collins@kcl.ac.uk

Funding:

The research was supported under the framework of the International Cooperation Program (2011-0030914) and the Basic Science Research Program (NRF-2011-0024415) managed by the National Research Foundation of Korea, which are funded by the Korean Ministry of Education. Additional funding was provided by the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research (NIHR BRC) for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London, and the Swiss Anorexia Foundation.

Paper references:

(1) Kim, Y-R. et al. 'Intranasal oxytocin attenuates attentional bias for eating and fat shape stimuli in patients with anorexia nervosa' published in Psychoneuroendocrinology
(2) Kim, Y-R. et al. 'The impact of intranasal oxytocin on attention to social emotional stimuli in patients with anorexia nervosa: a double blind within subject cross-over experiment' published in PLOS ONE on 6th March 2014

About King's College London:

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013/14 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times 'Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13'. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 25,000 students (of whom more than 10,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and more than 6,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a 1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly 554 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The College is in the midst of a five-year, 500 million fundraising campaign World questions|King's answers created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity as quickly as feasible. The campaign's five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children's health. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kingsanswers.



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