Current Research

1. Effects of oxytocin on social cognitive functioning

1.1. Gender-specific effects of oxytocin

The neuropeptide oxytocin is known for enhancing trust and approach behaviour to one’s conspecifics and to exert stress-reducing and anxiolytic effects. Our group is interested in the modulation of psychological functions that may mediate the prosocial effects of oxytocin. Regarding basic social cognitive functions such as facial processing we found that oxytocin improves “mind-reading” from the eyes and enhances the capability to recognize aversive facial expressions of fear and anger. A number of studies found that oxytocin reduces neuronal activity in the amygdala. In a study of our group oxytocin was shown to dampen neuronal activity in the amygdala in response to negative and positive facial stimuli in male healthy volunteers (figure 1a). However, oxytocin research has been widely restricted to males although it is crucially involved in the regulation of reproduction related behavior in female mammals and humans. Therefore, we started to study the effects of oxytocin in female healthy women in the midluteal cycle and found that the results in females are at odds with the previously reported effects found in men. Blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal was enhanced in the left amygdala, the fusiform gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus in response to fearful faces and in the inferior frontal gyrus in response to angry and happy faces following oxytocin treatment (figure 1b). Thus, oxytocin effects may differ between the sexes as a function of generational tasks. Studies, currently in progress, start from the hypothesis that oxytocin may enhance the detection of threatening stimuli in the environment in females, potentially by interacting with gonadal steroids, such as progesterone and estrogen the more as OT-dependent alterations in female threat-detection and safety-seeking behavior have also been reported from non-human mammals.



1.2 Emotional processing in psychic disorders and the modulatory effect of oxytocin

Investigating the modulatory effect of oxytocin in psychiatric patients we select disorders that can be seen as opposing ends of social-behavior psychopathology. While subjects with autism spectrum disorders are characterized by social hyporesponsiveness and poor social bond formation, borderline personality disorder is known for its hypersensitivity and hypervigilance within the social context. In a study in high functioning adults with Asperger Syndrome we found that oxytocin improves emotion recognition specifically from the eye but not the mouth region. In addition, oxytocin increased activity in the basal forebrain to facial stimuli in general, and in brain regions that are involved in social cognition and attention (anterior insula, cuneus/precuneus, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, and temporal parietal junction) especially in response to eye stimuli. Eye-tracking data in female subjects with borderline personality disorder compared to female healthy controls indicate that oxytocin normalizes saccades latencies and reduces the number of saccades to the eye region in response to angry, but not to fearful and happy faces and thus is thought to dampen BPD subjects’ hypersensitivity to social threats by modulating attention. First fMRI data suggest that oxytocin reduces amygdalar activity to aversive social scenes in female BPD patients contrary to the results found in healthy female volunteers.

2. Affect dysregulation and social interaction in borderline personality disorder

2.1 Neuronal correlates of implicit and explicit affect regulation strategies

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by a pervasive pattern of instability in affect and interpersonal relationships as well as by (auto)-aggressive behaviors. BPD has been associated with excessive social affective vigilance and hypersensitivity to social stress, and in functional neuroimaging enhanced reactivity of the amygdala to emotional and social stimuli has been found. Our results (Figure 2) point to the role of two distinguishable processes of emotional difficulties in borderline personality disorder: Hypervigilance to social cues as well as deficits of voluntarily decreasing aversive emotions by means of cognitive reappraisal. Patients demonstrated enhanced activation of left amygdala and right insula during passive viewing and while processing a cognitive task which interfered with aversive background stimuli. When instructed to decrease their emotional reactions, patients showed attenuated activation of the left orbitofrontal cortex and increased activation of the bilateral insula. The results suggest that amygdalar and insular hyperactivity reflect hypervigilance while neuronal substrates of deficits in explicit emotion regulation may involve the orbitofrontal cortex, which is in line with previous findings of a dysfunctional prefrontal network in borderline personality disorder.


In a joint study with Christian Schmahl from the ZI, Mannheim we currently compare neurofunctional correlates of different affect regulation strategies (cognitive distraction, sensory distraction, cognitive reappraisal) before and after participating in a psychotherapeutic program that focuses on patients systematically learning affect regulation skills.

2.2. Hypersensitivity to social threat, anger, and (auto)aggression in patients with borderline personality disorder

This project intends to investigate behavioral and neural correlates of BPD patients’ (i) hypersensitivity to social threat and its implications on action dispositions in terms of approach or avoidance as well as of (ii) anger and its behavioral manifestations of aggression or autoaggression (i.e., self-injurious behavior) including differences in (iii) gender and (iv) age. New experimental paradigms are applied in several study designs that combine multimodal imaging with event-related potentials and the assessment of HPA and gonadal hormones.

2.3. Behavioural and neural effects of mothers’ history of childhood abuse on the interaction with their child – a study on the intergenerational cycle of violence

Mothers exposed to physical or sexual abuse in childhood frequently close the intergenerational cycle of violence by maltreating their children and threatening the child’s development. Mothers with a history of abuse have been described as being more impulsive, showing more aggressive response biases with higher rates of externalizing behavior being found in their offspring. This project investigates the impact of mothers’ childhood traumatic experiences on psychological and neurobiological correlates of maternal sensitivity, abuse potential and emotion re¬gulation as well as on child development and emotional well-being. An intervention with a focus on mother–child interaction is compared to conventional individual stress management in mothers.

Top publications:

Lischke T, Berger C, Prehn C, Heinrichs M, Herpertz SC, Domes G. Intranasal oxytocin enhances emotion recognition from dynamic facial expressions and leaves eye-gaze unaffected. Psychoneuroendocrinology, in press a.

Prehn K, Schulze L, Roßmann S, Berger C, Vohs K, Fleischer M, Hauenstein KH, Keiper P, Domes G, Herpertz SC. Effects of emotional stimuli on working memory processes in male criminal offenders with borderline and antisocial personality disorder. World J Psychiatry, in press b.

Domes G, Schulze L, Böttger M, Grossmann A, Hauenstein KH, Wirtz P, Heinrichs M, Herpertz SC (2010a) The neural basis of sex differences in emotional reactivity and emotion regulation. Human Brain Mapping 31, 758-69.

Domes G , Lischke T, Berger C, Grossmann A, Hauenstein K, Heinrichs M, Herpertz SC (2010b) Effects of intranasal oxytocin on emotional face processing in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, 83-93.

Herpertz SC, Hübner T, Marx I, Konrad K, Vloet T, Stöcker T, Shah J, Fink G, Herpertz-Dahlmann B (2008) Enhanced amygdala activity in male adolescents with childhood-onset conduct disorder during affective stimulation. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 49, 781-791.

Herpertz SC, Vloet T, Mueller M, Domes G, Willmes K, Herpertz-Dahlmann B. (2007) Similar autonomic responsivity in boys with conduct disorder and their fathers. Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 46, 535-545.

Domes G, Heinrichs M, Gläscher J, Braus DF, Büchel C, Herpertz SC (2007) Oxytocin attenuates amygdala responses to emotional faces regardless of valence. Biol Psychiatry, 62, 1187-1190.

Domes G, Heinrichs M, Michel A, Berger C, Herpertz SC (2006) Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans. Biol Psychiatry 61, 731-733.

Herpertz SC, Werth U, Lukas G, Qunaibi BS, Schuerkens A, HJ Kunert, R Freese, M Flesch, R Mueller-Isberner, M Osterheider, Sass H (2001) Emotion in criminal offenders with psychopathy and borderline personality disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry 58, 737-745.

Editor: A. Summerfield
Latest Revision: 2012-07-25
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