Generalized social anxiety disorder (GSAD) is characterized by deficits in the social realm, including difficulty in emotion processing, excessive attention towards critical faces and threatening social signals, and avoidance of eye contact. Those deficits have been linked to hyperactivity in a brain region called the amygdala under conditions of threat. For example imaging studies report heightened amygdala activity in patients with GSAD when viewing fearful and angry faces.
By contrast, Oxytocin is a neuropeptide associated with trust and willingness to accept social risks in interpersonal relationships. In addition, it has been linked to increased memory for positive social information. Thus, there is support for a potential role of oxytocin in GSAD, particularly since imaging studies provide evidence that it attenuates amygdala activity in healthy patients when they are viewing fearful and angry faces.
OXYTOCIN AND SOCIAL FEAR
Consistent with that reasoning, the current study attempts to determine the role of oxytocin in GSAD patients, particularly focusing on amygdala activity in the presence of angry/fearful faces. The results partially support previous findings in healthy patients by showing decreased activity of the amygdala in GSAD patients only when viewing fearful faces, not angry faces, which suggests that oxytocin may influence the fear response in this disorder.
More specifically, the authors suggest that oxytocin may normalize the activation of the amygdala, which is abnormally hyperactive in GSAD. However, it is important to add that attenuation of the fear-related amygdala activity was observed without eliciting a change in mood and anxiety, which could be attributed to the brevity of the study. In fact, the authors speculate that prolonged treatment with oxytocin could reveal more significant clinical and behavioral improvement.
Labuschagne I, Phan KL, Wood A, Angstadt M, Chua P, Heinrichs M, Stout JC, Nathan PJ. Oxytocin attenuates amygdala reactivity to fear in generalized social anxiety disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010 Nov;35(12):2403-13. doi: 10.1038/npp.2010.123. Epub 2010 Aug 18. PMID: 20720535; PMCID: PMC3055328.