Oxytocin Affects Response to Social Touch

To complement the Research Reports in the September 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: In a recent study of 40 men, the administration of oxytocin increased the subjects’ perception of the pleasantness of female touch.

oxytocin

 

The administration of intranasal oxytocin increased the perceived pleasantness of female touch, but not male touch, among heterosexual males, according to recent research. However, among those subjects with autistic traits, the effect of oxytocin was reduced. (Previous, unrelated research has indicated that massage therapy supports the release of oxytocin.)

The study, “An oxytocin-induced facilitation of neural and emotional responses to social touch correlates inversely with autism traits,” involved 40 healthy, heterosexual males with a mean age of around 26. The autistic traits of these men were assessed using the autism-spectrum quotient questionnaire.

 

Oxytocin versus placebo

The subjects were randomly assigned to receive either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo sodium chloride solution 30 minutes prior to undergoing brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study participants also were introduced to both a male and female researcher and told, in a random order, that either the male or female would be in the fMRI room with them.

The subjects were informed that during the fMRI they would be shown a picture of which researcher was in the room and notified when the researcher was going to touch their legs. A 20-centimeter section was marked on both shins of each subject, and the researcher touched the calf and shin within this section, from the knee to the ankle, for a total of four seconds on each leg.

 

Male touch versus female touch

In a random order, the subjects were told the male researcher or the female researcher was the one in the room and supplying the touch. However, it was actually the same female researcher the entire time. A curtain was used to ensure the men could not see the researcher who was touching their legs. After the touching was complete, the subjects rated the pleasantness of the touch on a visual analog scale.

Among the men in both the oxytocin group and the placebo group, the female touch was rated as significantly more pleasant than what they believed was the male touch, and the brain scans showed neural responses associated with finding the female touch more pleasant.

Those who received the intranasal oxytocin rated the pleasantness of the female touch even higher, but there was no such increase in pleasantness ratings when the men who had received oxytocin believed they were being touched by a male. Additionally, according to the study’s authors, the oxytocin-mediated increase in pleasantness ratings for female touch was less significant among the men with a higher level of autistic traits.

 

Authors: Dirk Scheele, Keith M. Kendrick, Christoph Khouri, Elisa Kretzer, Thomas E. Schläpfer, Birgit Stoffel-Wagner, Onur Güntürkün, Wolfgang Maier and René Hurlemann.

Sources: Department of Psychiatry, Division of Medical Psychology and Department of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany; Key Laboratory for Neuroinformation, School of Life Science and Technology, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, People’s Republic of China; Departments of Psychiatry and Mental Health, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland; Department of Biopsychology, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany; German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Bonn, Germany. Originally published in 2014 in Neuropsychopharmacology, 39(9), 2078-2085.

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