The researchers found that oxytocin reduced activity in two regions which act as natural “defence barriers”.
They are the amygdala, which processes fear and danger, and an area of the striatum, which helps to guide future behaviour, based on reward feedback.
The amygdala has been found to be extremely active in the brains of sufferers of social phobia.
Dr Baumgartner’s colleague, Professor Markus Heinrichs, has begun a study where social phobia sufferers are given either oxytocin or a placebo, in combination with cognitive and behavioural therapy.
The trials are ongoing, but Dr Baumgartner said that early signs appear “promising”.
Given that in normal people oxytocin apparently makes people trust others even when they have clear signals that that’s not a good idea, I have to wonder about how it would work for social phobics. If the overactivity in the amygdala is purely chemical, then damping activity might enable normal interactions. On the other hand, if the excess fear is the result of other stuff that’s haywire (or even some very good reasons to be terrified in social situations, like a complete inability to sing karaoke) then you’ll end up with someone who really hates to go out in public but no longer has the cognitive capacity to avoid it…
(I can see this as being useful under very controlled situations, so that a therapist can show someone what it’s like not to be phobic, but what do you want to bet the off-label uses start right up? If you could figure out the administration route, it would be the miracle drug for everyone from con artists to roofie dealers.)