Oxytocin modulation of social attention

Illustration of stimuli and main effects of stimulus type on gaze time to salient features of celebrity photographs (Study 2, test 1).

All mammals form bonds, at least between lactating mother and infant. Oxytocin is key to these processes in rodents and sheep; less is known about its importance for human bonding due to a lack of oxytocin antagonists for human use. Lots of human studies using intranasal oxytocin indicate increased salience of socially relevant cues such as the eye region of human faces. In two ongoing projects, we probe the functional relationship between oxytocin levels and visual attention to others’ eyes:

1. Meta-analysis of intranasal oxytocin effects on gaze to others’ eyes. Due to the low statistical power of most intranasal oxytocin papers, published results are typically mixed, and a publication bias is considered likely. In this project, Runa Jacobsen is summarising the existing literature (and any unpublished data we can find) in several populations: healthy humans, psychiatric groups, dogs gazing at their owners, and other animals’ gaze time to conspecifics’ eyes (preregistration here).

2. Is there anything special about oxytocin and the eyes? Intranasal oxytocin studies in healthy humans.  We have also conducted some placebo-controlled, double-blind intranasal oxytocin studies using eye-tracking and photographs to address this question more directly. A lot of people have contributed to design, data collection (Study 1, N=100 between-subjects; Study 2, N=50 within-subjects) and analysis, notably my long-standing collaborator and pharmacologist Lars Westberg, Martin Asperholm, Daniel Hovey and Marie Eikemo (Study 1) as well as Louise Martens, Nils Simonsen, Andreas Dahl (all brilliant interns at LAB lab) and Guro Løseth (Study 2).

Examples of stimuli used in our intranasal oxytocin studies, enabling us to ask e.g. whether oxytocin enhances gaze to the “eyes” of face-like houses, insects, and whether oxytocin enhances gaze to the eyes of averted faces or in the presence of competing salient stimuli (celebrity cleavages). This study has been so much fun!