The acute effects of intranasal oxytocin on automatic and effortful attentional shifting to emotional faces


  • This research was supported by grants to Mark Ellenbogen from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Anne-Marie Linnen was supported by a scholarship from the Fonds Québecois de la Recherche sur la Nature et les Technologies. Dr. Ellenbogen is currently supported by a Canada Research Chair appointment from the SSHRC.

Address correspondence to: Mark A. Ellenbogen, Centre for Research in Human Development, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke St. West, Montréal, QC, H4B 1R6, Canada. E-mail:


Oxytocin is known to promote social affiliation. The mechanism by which this occurs is unknown, but it may involve changes in social information processing. In a placebo-controlled study, we examined the influence of intranasal oxytocin on effortful and automatic attentional shifting in 57 participants using a spatial cueing task with emotional and neutral faces. For effortful processing, oxytocin decreased the speed of shifting attention to sad faces presented for 750 ms and facilitated disengagement from right hemifield sad and angry faces presented for 200 ms. For automatic processing, symptoms of depression moderated the relationship between drug and disengagement. Oxytocin attenuated an attentional bias to masked angry faces on disengagement trials in persons with high depression scores. Oxytocin's influence on social behavior may occur, in part, by eliciting flexible attentional shifting in the early stages of information processing.