Research on the role of oxytocin, a neuropeptide, in social cognition has generated much interest during the last few years. We have earlier written about oxytocin’s role in social attachment; together with vasopressin, another neuropeptide, oxytocin is thought to be critical for linking social signals to structures in the mesolimbic part of the brain responsible for forming social attachment and pair bonding. In a study published in Nature Ernst Fehr and his group demonstrated that injecting people with a spray of oxytocin increases trust.
Now, in a pretty remarkable new study published in Biological Psychiatry, German researchers show that injecting subjects with a whiff of oxytocin will also improve be ability to infer, based just on eye cues, what a person is thinking about. Here’s the abstract:
The ability to “read the mind” of other individuals, that is, to infer their mental state by interpreting subtle social cues, is indispensable in human social interaction. The neuropeptide oxytocin plays a central role in social approach behavior in nonhuman mammals.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject design, 30 healthy male volunteers were tested for their ability to infer the affective mental state of others using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) after intranasal administration of 24 IU oxytocin.
Oxytocin improved performance on the RMET compared with placebo. This effect was pronounced for difficult compared with easy items.
Our data suggest that oxytocin improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region. Oxytocin might play a role in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder, which is characterized by severe social impairment.
Clearly, this suggests that oxytocin not only modulates mesolimbic brain structures. Earlier studies have implicated the fusiform face area and superior temporal sulcus in extracting social information from facial perception. May oxytocin also impact on these structures? Whatever turns out to be the case, I imagine that no politician or CEO will ever sit down at the negotiation table again without their trusty bottle of oxytocin.