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The Neurobiology of Trust
19 August 2011
Few topics in the neurosciences have generated as much excitement in recent years as research on oxytocin. This neurohormone has been known for its significance for childbirth and breastfeeding for well over half a century. In the past two decades, studies conducted on animals have indicated that it also plays a crucial role in social bonding behavior and in the reduction of stress and anxiety in social situations.
Prof. Dr. Markus Heinrichs, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Freiburg, was the first scientist ever to study the significance of oxytocin for social behavior, anxiety, and stress in human beings. In a series of studies, some of them published in the scientific journal Nature, he demonstrated that oxytocin administered as a nasal spray increases subjects’ trust and empathy while reducing their anxiety and stress. An important expectation attached to research on this hormone system is that it will lead to concrete clinical applications. So far, mental disorders involving social deficits have been particularly difficult or impossible to treat through traditional therapeutic means. Only half of social phobia patients can currently be treated successfully with therapy, and no effective therapy has yet been developed for healing patients with autism.
In the current issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a team of neuroscientists including Markus Heinrichs and Dr. Gregor Domes from the University of Freiburg and Prof. Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg and Prof. Dr. Peter Kirsch from Heidelberg’s Central Institute for Mental Health introduce a new model addressing the relevance of neurohormones for the “social brain.” By integrating methods from the behavioral sciences as well as from hormone, genetic, and brain research, the scientists succeed in detailing new clinical perspectives for treating mental disorders involving social deficits. “The ‘psychobiological therapy’ we describe does not involve the development of a new medication, but rather a ‘propsychotherapeutic’ stimulation of a neurohormone system—meaning a combination of hormones and interactional psychotherapy,” explains Markus Heinrichs. Since transferring from the University of Zurich to the University of Freiburg in late 2009, Heinrichs has headed the Outpatient Psychotherapy Clinic for Stress-Related Disorders and has also conducted clinical studies in cooperation with the Department of Psychiatry at the Freiburg University Medical Center.