Background: Heightened threat sensitivity is a transdiagnostic feature in several psychiatric disorders. The neuropeptide oxytocin has been shown to reduce fear related behaviours and facilitated fear extinction in animals. These findings have led to increasing interest to explore the effects of intranasal oxytocin on threat processing in humans.
Methods: The review included 26 studies (N = 1173), nine of which included clinical populations (N = 234). The clinical groups included were people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence disorder. We examined the effects of a single dose of intranasal oxytocin on startle response, attentional responses, and behavioural responses to threat.
Results: A single dose of intranasal oxytocin significantly increased the physiological startle response to threat in healthy people with a small effect size. However, oxytocin did not have significant effects on attentional bias towards social or disorder-specific threat, fixation towards threatening stimuli among healthy or clinical populations, or on threat related behavioural approach or avoidance responses.
Limitations: No studies investigated the effects of oxytocin on the startle response to threat among clinical populations. Additionally, only one of the reviewed studies had sufficient power to detect at least a moderate effect of oxytocin according to our criterion.
Discussion: The synthesis of literature suggest that oxytocin may influence the salience of threatening stimuli among healthy individuals, increasing the startle response to threat. It would be of interest to investigate the effects of oxytocin on the startle response to threat among clinical populations.
Keywords: Approach; Attention; Avoidance; Oxytocin; Startle; Threat processing.
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