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Oxytocin improves specific recognition of positive facial expressions

Abstract

Background

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is associated with increased trust. Perceptions of trustworthiness are associated with detection of positive facial affect, which suggests that oxytocin may enhance the recognition of positive facial affect. The present study tests this hypothesis.

Methods

A double-blind, between-groups design was used, with 50 volunteers randomly assigned to receive intranasally administered oxytocin or placebo. Thirty-five minutes following the administration of oxytocin or placebo, participants identified anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise expressions that were morphed with neutral faces such that they varied from 10% to 100% intensity.

Results

Oxytocin significantly and specifically improved the recognition of happy facial expressions; no significant differences in recognition of other expression were found. The improvement was not associated with gender, response biases, or changes in mood, and it was most pronounced for subtle expressions.

Conclusions

Acute oxytocin administration enhances healthy adults’ ability to accurately identify positive emotional facial expressions. These findings reinforce oxytocin’s role in facilitating affiliative interactions and have implications for the treatment of conditions that are marked by social affiliation deficits.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Reanalyzing our data using the methods of Di Simplicio and colleagues—removing responses to 10% and 20% intensity expressions and calculating d′ using the number of hits for each expression, the number of false alarms, the number of targets, and the number of distractors and the formula: Pr = (number of hits + 0.5/number of targets +1) − (number of false alarms + 0.5/number of distractors +1)—also failed to yield significant results. The resulting group × emotion interaction was F(5, 230) = 0.43, ns, and the group comparison for happy expressions was t(48) = 1.56, P = 0.12 (two-tailed). This suggests that the difference in results between the two studies may reflect differences in the sensitivity of the analysis strategies.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Mental Health. We wish to thank Samantha Crowe, Elizabeth Finger, David Fink, Adriana Pavletic, Nanette Schell, Andy Speer, and Judith Starling for their assistance in conducting this research.

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Correspondence to Abigail A. Marsh.

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Marsh, A.A., Yu, H.H., Pine, D.S. et al. Oxytocin improves specific recognition of positive facial expressions. Psychopharmacology 209, 225–232 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-010-1780-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-010-1780-4

Keywords

  • Oxytocin
  • Neuropeptide
  • Emotion
  • Facial
  • Affinity