Intranasal oxytocin alters attention to emotional facial expressions, particularly for males and those with depressive symptoms

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2022 Aug;142:105796. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105796. Epub 2022 May 13.


Intranasal oxytocin (OT) can enhance emotion recognition, perhaps by promoting increased attention to social cues. Some studies indicate that individuals with difficulties processing social information, including those with psychopathology, show more pronounced effects in response to OT. As such, there is interest in the potential therapeutic use of OT in populations with deficits in social cognition. The present study examined the effects of intranasal OT on the processing of facial features and selective attention to emotional facial expressions, as well as whether individual differences in depressive symptom severity predict sensitivity to intranasal OT. In a double-blind placebo-controlled within-subject design, eye tracking was used to measure attention to facial features in an emotional expression appraisal task, and attention to emotional expressions in a free-viewing task with a quadrant of multiple faces. OT facilitated the processing of positive cues, enhancing the maintenance of attention to the mouth region of happy faces and to happy faces within a quadrant, with similar effect sizes, despite the latter effect not being statistically significant. Further, persons with depressive symptoms, and particularly males, were sensitive to OT's effects. For males only, OT, relative to placebo, increased attentional focus to the mouth region of all faces. Individuals with depressive symptoms showed less attentional focus on angry (males only) and sad facial expressions, and more attention to happy faces (particularly for males). Results indicate increased sensitivity to OT in males and persons at risk for depression, with OT administration promoting a positive bias in selective attention to social stimuli.

Keywords: Attention; Depressive symptoms; Emotional stimuli; Intranasal oxytocin; Sex differences.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Attention* / drug effects
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emotions
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxytocin* / administration & dosage
  • Oxytocin* / pharmacology
  • Sex Factors


  • Oxytocin