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Is 'cuddle drug' really the new Viagra?

“Forget Viagra, the 'cuddle drug' could be the new way to boost performance in the bedroom,” according to the Daily Mail. Apparently, inhaling the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin can cause improvements in sexual problems “on a par with Viagra”.

Oxytocin is a hormone naturally released by pregnant women prior to labour, although it is also thought to be released after male and female orgasm. The hormone is currently being investigated as a treatment for a variety of psychiatric conditions including anxiety, schizophrenia and personality disorders.

Today’s news headlines are based on a study where one man was given oxytocin to treat social avoidance and behavioural problems. While it did not improve the man’s social phobia, it did cause him to become more spontaneously affectionate, and improved his libido, sexual arousal and ability to get an erection.

As the trial involved only a single patient with a specific condition, it is not known whether the results will apply to other men with similar conditions. Also, without comparing the use of oxytocin with Viagra we cannot tell whether it truly is more effective, as newspapers have claimed. In short, medical trials in more than one person are needed to see whether intranasal oxytocin could be a safe and useful therapy to improve male sexual function.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of California. No source of funding was reported. It was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sexual Medicine.

The story was covered by the Daily Mail. Although the reporting of the research is accurate, the headline conveyed the impression that the effects of oxytocin were seen in a large trial, rather than being based on the effects it had on just one man.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a “case study” – an in-depth analysis of a single patient. The research was examining a potential medical use of oxytocin, a hormone which:

  • is involved in sexual reproduction, as it is released before and after birth to facilitate breastfeeding
  • is often referred to by the press as the “cuddle hormone” or “cuddle chemical” as it may have roles in social behaviour, including bonding, maternal behaviour and wound healing
  • is being investigated as a treatment for a variety of psychiatric conditions including anxiety, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder
  • is reportedly released after male and female orgasm

In this case report, doctors provided an account of the man’s experiences when he was prescribed nasally inhaled oxytocin twice a day to treat social avoidance and relationship problems. The duration of his treatment was not reported. As only a single patient was involved in this study, it is unknown whether the results will be more widely relevant, or repeatable.

 

What did the research involve?

A 32-year old man with adult attention deficit disorder (ADD) was treated with intranasal oxytocin for social avoidance and relationship problems. Other drugs can be used to help treat these problems, but in this man’s case they were either trialled and found to have side effects, or were unsuitable.

 

What were the basic results?

Although the oxytocin did not improve the man’s social phobia, it did cause him to be more spontaneously affectionate, causing his relationship with his wife to improve. However, he also “spontaneously (appropriately) hugged a female work colleague in a very ‘out of character’ way”.

The patient also experienced an improvement in sexual function, with a 46% improvement in his score on a test called the Arizona Sexual Experience Scale. He saw improvements on all items of the scale (libido, sexual arousal, erectile function and satisfaction with orgasm).

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers stated that intranasal oxytocin had broad-spectrum benefits on male sexual function. They concluded that “future trials of oxytocin for psychiatric indications should specifically monitor its effects on sexuality and trials directly investigating oxytocin’s impact on aspects of sexual function are warranted”.

 

Conclusion

The results of this study have generated lots of online interest in oxytocin, with many sources describing it as “the new Viagra” or a cure for male sexual dysfunction. These reports are premature and unwarranted, as the seemingly impressive study results behind them are based on just one man.

In his case he was given oxytocin not for sexual dysfunction or erection difficulties, but in an attempt to treat his social avoidance and relationship problems. Oxytocin use led the man to be more spontaneously affectionate and improved all aspects of his sexual function, although it did not improve his social phobia.

Given that only a single patient was involved in this study, the drug will need more research into it because:

  • It is unknown whether the results will be relevant to other men without social phobia – the patient in this study may have previously been experiencing reduced sexual functioning due to his condition, and therefore other men may not see the same improvements.
  • As there was not control treatment to compare oxytocin with, it is not known if the observed effect is due to oxytocin or if it is due to the “placebo effect” – where something has an effect because someone expects it to.
  • Controlled trials, at least, are needed to see whether intranasal oxytocin affects male sexual function in a predictable way compared with nothing.
  • Trials will also be needed to see if oxytocin is actually better than Viagra at relieving sexual dysfunction, as some news sources have suggested.
  • Other studies will be needed to check safety and see if there are side effects with longer-term use – in this instance the man felt compelled to hug a female colleague in a way that was out of character, although socially appropriate.

Analysis by Bazian

 

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