, Volume 231, Issue 24, pp 4735–4744 | Cite as

The beneficial effect of oxytocin on avoidance-related facial emotion recognition depends on early life stress experience

  • Melanie FeeserEmail author
  • Yan Fan
  • Anne Weigand
  • Adam Hahn
  • Matti Gärtner
  • Sabine Aust
  • Heinz Böker
  • Malek Bajbouj
  • Simone Grimm
Original Investigation



Previous studies have shown that oxytocin (OXT) enhances social cognitive processes. It has also been demonstrated that OXT does not uniformly facilitate social cognition. The effects of OXT administration strongly depend on the exposure to stressful experiences in early life. Emotional facial recognition is crucial for social cognition. However, no study has yet examined how the effects of OXT on the ability to identify emotional faces are altered by early life stress (ELS) experiences. Given the role of OXT in modulating social motivational processes, we specifically aimed to investigate its effects on the recognition of approach- and avoidance-related facial emotions.


In a double-blind, between-subjects, placebo-controlled design, 82 male participants performed an emotion recognition task with faces taken from the “Karolinska Directed Emotional Faces” set. We clustered the six basic emotions along the dimensions approach (happy, surprise, anger) and avoidance (fear, sadness, disgust). ELS was assessed with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ).


Our results showed that OXT improved the ability to recognize avoidance-related emotional faces as compared to approach-related emotional faces. Whereas the performance for avoidance-related emotions in participants with higher ELS scores was comparable in both OXT and placebo condition, OXT enhanced emotion recognition in participants with lower ELS scores. Independent of OXT administration, we observed increased emotion recognition for avoidance-related faces in participants with high ELS scores.


Our findings suggest that the investigation of OXT on social recognition requires a broad approach that takes ELS experiences as well as motivational processes into account.


Oxytocin Neuropeptide Facial emotion recognition Early life stress 


Conflicts of interest

All authors report no potential conflict of interest or financial interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Melanie Feeser
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Yan Fan
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Anne Weigand
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Adam Hahn
    • 4
  • Matti Gärtner
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Sabine Aust
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Heinz Böker
    • 5
  • Malek Bajbouj
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Simone Grimm
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 5
  1. 1.Cluster of Excellence “Languages of Emotion”Freie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry, Campus Benjamin FranklinCharité BerlinBerlinGermany
  3. 3.Dahlem Institute for Neuroimaging of EmotionFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  4. 4.Social Cognition Center CologneUniversity of CologneCologneGermany
  5. 5.Clinic for Affective Disorders and General PsychiatryPsychiatric University Hospital ZürichZurichSwitzerland

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