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Intranasal oxytocin increases heart-rate variability in men at clinical high-risk for psychosis: a proof-of-concept study.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
JournalTranslational psychiatry
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 Jun 2020


King's Authors


Autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysfunction (i.e. increased sympathetic and/or decreased parasympathetic activity) has been proposed to contribute to psychosis vulnerability. Yet, we still lack directed therapeutic strategies that improve ANS regulation in psychosis or at-risk states. The oxytocin system constitutes a potential therapeutic target, given its role in ANS regulation. However, whether intranasal oxytocin ameliorates autonomic regulation during emerging psychosis is currently unknown.

We pooled together two datasets, one of 30 men at clinical high-risk for psychosis (CHR-P), and another of 17 healthy men, who had participated in two double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized, cross-over MRI studies with similar protocols. All participants self-administered 40 IU of intranasal oxytocin or placebo using a nasal spray. We recorded pulse plethysmography during a period of 8 minutes at about 1 hour post-dosing and estimated heart rate (HR) and high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), an index of cardio-parasympathetic activity.

CHR-P and healthy men did not differ at resting HR or HF-HRV under placebo. We found a significant condition x treatment effect for HF-HRV, showing that intranasal oxytocin, compared to placebo, increased HF-HRV in CHR-P but not in healthy men. The main effects of treatment and condition were not significant.

In this proof-of-concept study we show that intranasal oxytocin increases cardio-parasympathetic activity in CHR-P men, highlighting its therapeutic potential to improve autonomic regulation in this clinical group. Our findings support the need for further research on the preventive and therapeutic potential of intranasal oxytocin during emerging psychosis, where we lack effective treatments.

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