'Cuddle chemical' cure may solve chronic shyness
In the early 1700s, who would have believed that a pretty purple biennial would revolutionise the treatment of heart disease. Less than 75 years later, the common plant known as Foxglove, native to our hedgerows, was found to contain digitalis, a chemical used for cardiac disorders.
Perhaps we are on the brink of another major advance in therapeutics, with the results of recent worldwide studies suggesting that oxytocin, the hormone produced during labour to stimulate contractions of the uterus, and involved also in lactation after delivery, might actually be a treatment for excessive and disabling shyness, known as social-anxiety disorder.
It may also have a role in adult-child and adult-adult attachment behaviour and bonding. Indeed, some studies suggest that blood levels of oxytocin predict the extent of the mother-child bond, while its release after sexual intercourse may increase feelings of intimacy.
For several years, investigators from California, Europe and Australia have been exploring the potential for oxytocin. The latest research claims that its impact in reducing wariness and suspicion might create a role for it in treating social-anxiety disorder, a condition that can be so incapacitating as to spawn a hermit-like existence through fear and self-criticism.
There are, understandably, some who are sceptical of calling shyness a psychiatric disorder and so would be loath to embark on 'treatment' with a hormone. Yet in extreme cases, it can prevent those affected attending even the most undemanding job interview or inhibit otherwise intelligent people from drinking tea in a café.
Since its onset is during adolescent years, it runs a long-term course and the cost to the sufferer is enormous. It is not simply a reluctance to walk into a room alone or a hesitancy about mixing with the opposite sex. Its effect is much more damaging to the individual than that, to the extent that many develop alcohol or other substance abuse problems due to their role in reducing anxiety and generating Dutch courage.
The rationale behind considering the possible use of oxytocin to treat this condition is that it reduces activity in the amygdale, the brain area that processes fear and conveys that message to other parts.
Other uses are also suggested, such as spraying it in a restaurant to create a relaxing atmosphere, or using it to reduce aggression during crowd management, a type of benign tear gas.
If this 'cuddle chemical' has beneficient effects, what of undesirable effects? The obvious downside is that it could facilitate date rape, for instance, by increasing trust. Situations where fear is desirable might also be vulnerable to manipulation, as in speeding.
A nasal spray has been developed and is currently being tested. Preliminary results show that, at least for social-anxiety disorder, when used shortly before a difficult encounter it can reduce anxiety levels.
Tests that involve trust and risk have also demonstrated an impact in these areas. There are of course other potential areas in which it could be used if its efficacy is demonstrated, such as for those who have personality difficulties including excessive jealousy or possessiveness, those who are by nature sensitive and suspicious and those who lack empathy. It might also be useful where there are parent-child relationship problems.
Much of what is currently suggested is speculative. Only time will tell if this is the miracle substance it is thought to be or simply another example of hope exceeding reality.