Sniffing around oxytocin: review and meta-analyses of trials in healthy and clinical groups with implications for pharmacotherapy

Transl Psychiatry. 2013 May 21;3(5):e258. doi: 10.1038/tp.2013.34.


The popularity of oxytocin (OT) has grown exponentially during the past decade, and so has the number of OT trials in healthy and clinical groups. We take stock of the evidence from these studies to explore potentials and limitations of pharmacotherapeutic applications. In healthy participants, intranasally administered OT leads to better emotion recognition and more trust in conspecifics, but the effects appear to be moderated by context (perceived threat of the 'out-group'), personality and childhood experiences. In individuals with untoward childhood experiences, positive behavioral or neurobiological effects seem lowered or absent. In 19 clinical trials, covering autism, social anxiety, postnatal depression, obsessive-compulsive problems, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress, the effects of OT administration were tested, with doses ranging from 15 IU to more than 7000 IU. The combined effect size was d=0.32 (N=304; 95% confidence interval (CI): 0.18-0.47; P<0.01). However, of all disorders, only studies on autism spectrum disorder showed a significant combined effect size (d=0.57; N=68; 95% CI: 0.15-0.99; P<0.01). We hypothesize that for some of the other disorders, etiological factors rooted in negative childhood experiences may also have a role in the diminished effectiveness of treatment with OT.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anxiety / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / drug therapy
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage
  • Oxytocin / therapeutic use*
  • Personality Disorders / drug therapy
  • Phobic Disorders / drug therapy
  • Schizophrenia / drug therapy
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / drug therapy
  • Trust


  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Oxytocin