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Oxytocin facilitates the sensation of social stress


  • ME and DS contributed equally to this work (shared first authorship). ME, DS, and RH designed the experiments; ME, DS, and KW conducted the experiments; ME, DS, and RH analyzed the data; BS contributed new reagents/analytic tools; and ME, DS, KW, BS, WM, and RH wrote the article.


Essentially all social species experience social stress which can be a catalyst for detriments in mental and physical health. The neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) has been shown to produce anxiolytic and antistress effects, thereby qualifying the OXT system as a promising drug target in the treatment of stress-related disorders. However, recently it has been shown that OXT can have anxiogenic effects as well. In the present study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 60 healthy men while they were exposed to social stress after they received either intranasal OXT (24 IU) or placebo treatment. Although OXT administration did not alter salivary cortisol levels as a surrogate marker of stress axis activity, our participants initially reported an increment in perceived social stress. This behavioral effect was paralleled on the neural level by increased activity in the precuneus and cingulate cortex. Taken together, our results support the hypothesis that OXT can induce a self-referential processing bias which facilitates the sensation of social stress in the absence of altered endocrine responses. Hum Brain Mapp 35:4741–4750, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.