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Oxytocin Helps Remember Familiar Faces

January 7, 2009

Swiss researchers said on Tuesday, that the “love” hormone linked to feelings of sexual pleasure, bonding and maternal care also appears to help us recognize familiar faces.

Peter Klaver of the University of Zurich and colleagues reported that men given oxytocin more accurately recalled images of familiar faces but the hormone did not help them recognize inanimate objects.

Researchers said the hormone somehow strengthens the brain’s neural networks involved in social memory and may have implications for conditions such as autism.

“The study highlights the parallels in social information processing in mice and man, and adds further support to the notion oxytocin plays a critical role,” Larry Young, an expert on oxytocin at Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement to Reuters.

“This has important implications for disorders such as autism, where social information processing is clearly impaired.”

Oxytocin has been known for years to be involved in labor and it is the hormone that stimulates the production of milk for breast feeding.  Studies show that it can help with bonding between mother and child and between mates.

Only in recent decades has it been found to have a function in men, in sexual arousal and function.

There were 44 men during the study that were given oxytocin or placebo and shown pictures of faces and inanimate objects that included sculptures, houses and other images.

The men who used the oxytocin were more accurate in recognizing faces they had seen before than did those in the placebo group.  The hormone made no difference for the other pictures, Klaver said.

Other analysis showed the hormone made it less likely for people to mistakenly characterize unfamiliar faces as familiar, the researchers said.

“It is important to understand that social recognition can be improved by such hormones,” Klaver said.

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