Background: The hypothalamic neuropeptide oxytocin regulates reproductive behavior
and mother-infant interaction, and conclusive studies in humans indicate that oxytocin is also a
potent modulator of psychosocial function. Pilot experiments have yielded first evidence that this
neuropeptide moreover influences eating behavior.
Methods: We briefly summarize currently available studies on the involvement of the oxytocin
system in the pathophysiology of eating disorders, as well as on the effects of oxytocin administration
in patients with these disorders.
Results: Brain administration of oxytocin in animals with normal weight, but also with diet-induced
or genetically induced obesity, attenuates food intake and reduces body weight. In normal-weight
and obese individuals, acute intranasal oxytocin delivery curbs calorie intake from main dishes and
snacks. Such effects might converge with the poignant social and cognitive impact of oxytocin to
also improve dysfunctional eating behavior in the therapeutic context. This assumption has received
support in first studies showing that oxytocin might play a role in the disease process of anorexia
nervosa. In contrast, respective experiments in patients with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder
are still scarce.
Conclusions: We propose a framework of oxytocin’s role and its therapeutic potential in eating
disorders that aims at integrating social and metabolic aspects of its pharmacological profile, and
ponder perspectives and limitations of oxytocin use in the clinical setting.