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Intranasal oxytocin increases facial expressivity, but not ratings of trustworthiness, in patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls

  • J. D. Woolley (a1) (a2), B. Chuang (a1) (a2), C. Fussell (a1) (a2), S. Scherer (a3), B. Biagianti (a2), D. Fulford (a4), D. H. Mathalon (a1) (a2) and S. Vinogradov (a1) (a2)...
Abstract
Background

Blunted facial affect is a common negative symptom of schizophrenia. Additionally, assessing the trustworthiness of faces is a social cognitive ability that is impaired in schizophrenia. Currently available pharmacological agents are ineffective at improving either of these symptoms, despite their clinical significance. The hypothalamic neuropeptide oxytocin has multiple prosocial effects when administered intranasally to healthy individuals and shows promise in decreasing negative symptoms and enhancing social cognition in schizophrenia. Although two small studies have investigated oxytocin's effects on ratings of facial trustworthiness in schizophrenia, its effects on facial expressivity have not been investigated in any population.

Method

We investigated the effects of oxytocin on facial emotional expressivity while participants performed a facial trustworthiness rating task in 33 individuals with schizophrenia and 35 age-matched healthy controls using a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over design. Participants rated the trustworthiness of presented faces interspersed with emotionally evocative photographs while being video-recorded. Participants’ facial expressivity in these videos was quantified by blind raters using a well-validated manualized approach (i.e. the Facial Expression Coding System; FACES).

Results

While oxytocin administration did not affect ratings of facial trustworthiness, it significantly increased facial expressivity in individuals with schizophrenia (Z = −2.33, p = 0.02) and at trend level in healthy controls (Z = −1.87, p = 0.06).

Conclusions

These results demonstrate that oxytocin administration can increase facial expressivity in response to emotional stimuli and suggest that oxytocin may have the potential to serve as a treatment for blunted facial affect in schizophrenia.

Copyright
Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: J. Woolley, M.D./Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Francisco, 4150 Clement Street, 116C-1, San Francisco, CA 94121, USA. (Email: Josh.Woolley@ucsf.edu)
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