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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013 Sep;229(1):199-208. doi: 10.1007/s00213-013-3099-4. Epub 2013 May 5.

The effect of intranasal oxytocin treatment on conditioned fear extinction and recall in a healthy human sample.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA.



To improve outcomes for patients undergoing extinction-based therapies (e.g., exposure therapy) for anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there has been interest in identifying pharmaceutical compounds that might facilitate fear extinction learning and recall. Oxytocin (OT) is a mammalian neuropeptide that modulates activation of fear extinction-based neural circuits and fear responses. Little is known, however, about the effects of OT treatment on conditioned fear responding and extinction in humans.


The purpose of the present study was to assess the effects of OT in a fear-potentiated startle task of fear conditioning and extinction.


A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 44 healthy human participants was conducted. Participants underwent a conditioned fear acquisition procedure, after which they were randomized to treatment group and delivered OT (24 IU) or placebo via intranasal (IN) spray. Forty-five minutes after treatment, participants underwent extinction training. Twenty-four hours later, subjects were tested for extinction recall.


Relative to placebo, the OT group showed increased fear-potentiated startle responding during the earliest stage of extinction training relative to placebo; however, all treatment groups showed the same level of reduced responding by the end of extinction training. Twenty-four hours later, the OT group showed significantly higher recall of extinction relative to placebo.


The current study provides preliminary evidence that OT may facilitate fear extinction recall in humans. These results support further study of OT as a potential adjunctive treatment for extinction-based therapies in fear-related disorders.

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