The beneficial effect of oxytocin on avoidance-related facial emotion recognition depends on early life stress experience

Melanie Feeser, Yan Fan, Anne Weigand, Adam Hahn, Matti Gartner, Sabine Aust, Heinz Böker, Stephen Williams, Simone Grimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (SciVal)


RATIONALE: Previous studies have shown that oxytocin (OXT) enhances social cognitive processes. It has also been demonstrated that OXT does not uniformly facilitate social cognition. The effects of OXT administration strongly depend on the exposure to stressful experiences in early life. Emotional facial recognition is crucial for social cognition. However, no study has yet examined how the effects of OXT on the ability to identify emotional faces are altered by early life stress (ELS) experiences. Given the role of OXT in modulating social motivational processes, we specifically aimed to investigate its effects on the recognition of approach- and avoidance-related facial emotions.

METHODS: In a double-blind, between-subjects, placebo-controlled design, 82 male participants performed an emotion recognition task with faces taken from the "Karolinska Directed Emotional Faces" set. We clustered the six basic emotions along the dimensions approach (happy, surprise, anger) and avoidance (fear, sadness, disgust). ELS was assessed with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ).

RESULTS: Our results showed that OXT improved the ability to recognize avoidance-related emotional faces as compared to approach-related emotional faces. Whereas the performance for avoidance-related emotions in participants with higher ELS scores was comparable in both OXT and placebo condition, OXT enhanced emotion recognition in participants with lower ELS scores. Independent of OXT administration, we observed increased emotion recognition for avoidance-related faces in participants with high ELS scores.

CONCLUSIONS: Our findings suggest that the investigation of OXT on social recognition requires a broad approach that takes ELS experiences as well as motivational processes into account.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4735-4744
Number of pages10
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014


  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adult
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emotions/drug effects
  • Facial Expression
  • Fear/drug effects
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Oxytocin/administration & dosage
  • Recognition, Psychology/drug effects
  • Stress, Psychological/psychology
  • Young Adult


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