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Can oxytocin help combat loneliness?

Loneliness is not a disease, yet it poses a significant health problem. Persistent loneliness increases the risk of conditions such as depression, heart disease, and dementia. A team led by Dr. Jana Lieberz from the University Hospital Bonn (UKB) and Prof. Dr. Dirk Scheele from Ruhr University Bochum has investigated targeted approaches to combat loneliness.

In a controlled study involving the universities of Oldenburg, Bochum, Freiburg, and Haifa (Israel), 78 men and women who felt lonely were given oxytocin, also known as the "cuddle hormone," as a nasal spray.

Loneliness in this study is defined as a negative feeling that occurs when someone perceives their social relationships as insufficient in quantity or quality. Prolonged loneliness can lead to psychological and physical illnesses. Despite this, there are currently few effective interventions to reduce chronic loneliness.

Dr. Jana Lieberz and Prof. Dr. Dirk Scheele, along with lead author Ruben Berger (UKB), explored whether oxytocin could enhance the effectiveness of group therapy for loneliness. The results could help in reducing loneliness and its serious effects in the future.

In the study, participants attended five weekly group therapy sessions and used an oxytocin nasal spray. A control group received a placebo spray. Participants' feelings of loneliness were measured at the start of the study, after all the sessions, and at follow-ups three weeks and three months later. Additionally, during each session, their immediate feelings of loneliness, stress levels, quality of life, and the therapeutic relationship were assessed.

Reduced feeling of stress and improvement in the feeling of loneliness

The lead author of the study, Dr. Lieberz, summarizes: "The psychological intervention was associated with reduced stress and improved general feelings of loneliness across all treatment groups, effects that were still visible at the three-month follow-up." Although oxytocin did not significantly impact overall feelings of loneliness, quality of life, or stress levels, participants who received oxytocin reported less acute feelings of loneliness after the sessions compared to those who received a placebo.

"This is a very important observation we made," Dr. Lieberz explains. "Oxytocin was able to strengthen positive relationships with other group members and reduce acute feelings of loneliness from the start. It could be helpful to support patients at the beginning of psychotherapy. The observed effects of oxytocin might help individuals stay engaged and continue with the therapy," she adds. However, Dr. Lieberz emphasizes that oxytocin should not be seen as a cure-all and that therapy is not always necessary to alleviate loneliness.Does oxytocin help against loneliness?

This article is from the 3/2024 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.