Watch out, Viagra! The hormone oxytocin may also improve sexual function — at least in men with Asperger’s syndrome — according to a published case report.
Doctors at the San Diego Medical Center discovered this side effect of the so-called love hormone while treating a 32-year-old father of three who had been diagnosed with ADHD and fit the criteria for Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism. The patient, a successful businessman, was married but otherwise mostly unsocial, with what the researchers described as an “innate aversion to social relationships.” He told them he knew “he should mix more.”
Medication for the ADHD and treatment with antidepressants for his social anxiety had failed, the latter resulting mainly in sexual dysfunction that was not relieved by medications. Since some research suggests that oxytocin can improve social functioning, the patient agreed to an “off label” trial of the drug, which can be administered as a nasal spray. Neither the doctor nor the patient was expecting a change in sexual function.
Oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, is thought to be critical in helping form the bonds that unite monogamous mammals — both humans and animals — and parents and their offspring. In humans, it has been shown to increase trust and the ability to read social signals, and it is currently being tested for the treatment of depression, schizophrenia and Asperger’s.
Oxytocin isn’t all about love and cuddles, however: some research also shows that it can increase people’s feelings of prejudice toward outsiders and may exacerbate negative feelings in those who grew up without nurturing parents.
In the current case study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the drug produced small but noticeable improvements in the patient’s social behavior that were remarked upon both by colleagues at work and by the man’s wife. She reported that “he wants to be closer,” which led to more intimacy.
The biggest change, however, was seen in the bedroom. The man experienced a 46% improvement in sexual function, as measured on a standard scale, including more desire, more arousal, improved erectile function and even better orgasms. When he occasionally forgot to renew the prescription, these effects disappeared.
Of course, this is only a single case report, so a great deal of additional research is needed before oxytocin could be used as a sexual aid. Many drugs look effective before being subjected to placebo-controlled trials, and subjective experiences like sexual function are particularly prone to placebo effects.
Further, it’s possible that oxytocin’s benefit would apply only men with Asperger’s whose sexual relationships may be affected by their social problems. Lead author Dr. Kai MacDonald, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, notes that oxytocin doesn’t improve social skills much in those who are already socially proficient, and the same may be true with regard to sex. “Research indicates that oxytocin elevates a low floor to average, but does not take you higher,” he says.
However, another oxytocin researcher, Paul Zak, once told me that in his research on trust in the general population, 25% of men given the substance reported getting erections. And some research suggests that Viagra itself may act in part by affecting oxytocin: the erectile dysfunction drug has been found to increase release of oxytocin when oxytocin nerves are already active, as would typically be the case during sex.
It is unknown, however, whether this effect makes the man feel closer to his partner or more likely to fall in love with her, as might be suggested by other research on the role of oxytocin in romantic connections.
Consequently, the authors call for more research. Since MacDonald’s group is presently funded to study only conditions like schizophrenia, depression and addictions, the researchers are observing the sexual effects of oxytocin only as side effects for now.