Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans

J Neurosci. 2010 Apr 7;30(14):4999-5007. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5538-09.2010.


Oxytocin (OT) is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders. However, the potential of OT as a general facilitator of human learning and empathy is unclear. The current double-blind experiments on healthy adult male volunteers investigated first whether treatment with intranasal OT enhanced learning performance on a feedback-guided item-category association task where either social (smiling and angry faces) or nonsocial (green and red lights) reinforcers were used, and second whether it increased either cognitive or emotional empathy measured by the Multifaceted Empathy Test. Further experiments investigated whether OT-sensitive behavioral components required a normal functional amygdala. Results in control groups showed that learning performance was improved when social rather than nonsocial reinforcement was used. Intranasal OT potentiated this social reinforcement advantage and greatly increased emotional, but not cognitive, empathy in response to both positive and negative valence stimuli. Interestingly, after OT treatment, emotional empathy responses in men were raised to levels similar to those found in untreated women. Two patients with selective bilateral damage to the amygdala (monozygotic twins with congenital Urbach-Wiethe disease) were impaired on both OT-sensitive aspects of these learning and empathy tasks, but performed normally on nonsocially reinforced learning and cognitive empathy. Overall these findings provide the first demonstration that OT can facilitate amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in men.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adult
  • Amygdala / drug effects
  • Amygdala / pathology
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Diseases in Twins / pathology
  • Diseases in Twins / psychology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emotions / drug effects
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / drug effects
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lipoid Proteinosis of Urbach and Wiethe / pathology
  • Lipoid Proteinosis of Urbach and Wiethe / psychology
  • Male
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage*
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocin