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People who have trouble with social interactions may be able to look to the hormone oxytocin to improve their social skills, a small new study suggests.
Oxytocin, already known to play a role in maternal bonding, love and friendship, has now been shown to help people who feel shy or awkward to improve their social skills, according to researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University in New York.
However, the hormone doesn't seem to do much for people who already have great social and relational skills .
"Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathic and understanding of others," study researcher Jennifer Bartz an assistant psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said in a statement. "Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient."
The researchers measured the social competency of 27 healthy, adult men by having them take the Autism Spectrum Quotient, a test that measures how well people can think through social situations. Then, researchers randomly assigned some men to take oxytocin and the others to take a placebo.
The men then watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their lives, and rated how they thought the people in the videos were feeling.
The men who scored low on the social competency test and had taken oxytocin did better in the video test than men who scored low and did not take the oxytocin, the researchers said.
However, men who scored high on the social competency test did not seem to be affected at all by the oxytocin, according to the study.
The researchers acknowledged that more work is needed, but said the findings show oxytocin has the potential to treat social deficits in people with disorders such as autism .
The study was published Sept. 21 in the journal Psychological Science.