Schizophrenia is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder that often emerges in young adulthood, interfering with normal social development. The diagnosis is present in 1-2% of the population and cuts across socioeconomic, demographic and national lines, affects veterans as well as civilians, shaters families, and costs society billions in lost income due to social disability. The social deficits associated with schizophrenia wreak havoc on the lives of individuals who develop the disorder, and these deficits independently predict worse clinical, functional, and occupational outcomes above and beyond positive symptoms and other cognitive deficits. Despite their clinical importance, social deficits are poorly understood and resistant to available treatment options. Furthermore, abnormal neural and autonomic responses to social stimuli appear to underlie these deficits in schizophrenia. For example, patients demonstrate decreased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), increased activity of the amygdala, and decreased activity of the ventral prefrontal cortex (vPFC) when performing certain social tasks. The neuropeptide oxytocin plays an important role in social behavior in animals and humans, increasing pro-social behavior and improving social cognition in healthy and autistic individuals. Oxytocin has also been shown to have positive effects on neural and autonomic responses in healthy individuals. Despite its potential as a new treatment for social deficits and for remediation of neurophysiological abnormalities, few studies have examined the effects of oxytocin on social cognition and behavior or on neural and autonomic responses to social stimuli in patients with schizophrenia. We propose a series of experiments aimed at both investigating the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms of oxytocin's pro-social effects and quantifying the potentially clinically useful effects of oxytocinin patients with recent-onset schizophrenia. In order to accomplish these important goals, we will first examine the effects of a single dose of exogenous oxytocin on behavioral and psychophysiological responses using validated social cognition measures in 45 patients with recent-onset schizophrenia and 45 matched healthy comparison subjects. We will also assess PNS activity as indexed by respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in order to test the hypothesis that oxytocin promotes social behavior by increasing PNS tone. Next, we will examine if oxytocin administration normalizes neural responses to social stimuli by decreasing activity of the amygdala and increasing activity of the vPFC, using a well-studied fMRI social cognition paradigm in 36 of these patients and 36 of these healthy comparison subjects. If successful, these experiments will: 1) Provide novel and important data on the neurobiological factors that underlie social deficits in patients with schizophrenia; 2) Lead to larger clinical trials of oxytoin to improve clinical outcomes in young individuals with recent-onset schizophrenia; and 3) Provide a deeper understanding of the functional and mechanistic relationships linking interrelated neurophysiologic systems that support socially meaningful behavior in healthy and schizophrenic individuals. Studying young adult patients with recent-onset schizophrenia minimizes potential confounds of chronic illness including social isolation, drug abuse and neuroleptic use and maximizes the potential long-term impact of this intervention. Overall, this work has the potential to uncover mechanisms of social dysfunction in schizophrenia, and to identify a novel treatment for the difficult-to-treat social deficits of the illness.

Public Health Relevance

Schizophrenia affects 1-2% of the world population, is one of the top ten causes of disability worldwide, and costs the US economy more than $63 billion yearly. The VA system treats approximately 100,000 veterans with schizophrenia each year, accounting for nearly 12% of the VA's total healthcare costs. Current treatments fail to address the social deficits of schizophrenia, which are stronger predictors of clinical outcomes than positive symptoms. A pharmacological treatment for the social deficits of schizophrenia would have considerable benefit for patients, their families, society, and the VA healthcare system. The pro-social neuropeptide oxytocin is a promising treatment for social deficits in schizophrenia. The current study will investigate the effects of oxytocin on social functioning in patients with recent-onset schizophrenia and is a critical step towards identifying whether oxytocin is a viable treatment option in schizophrenia, particularly for young veterans in the earliest phases of the illness, who have a high likelihood for functional recovery.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Veterans Affairs (VA)
Veterans Administration (IK2)
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Mental Health and Behavioral Science B (MHBB)
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Veterans Affairs Medical Center San Francisco
San Francisco
United States
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Woolley, J D; Chuang, B; Fussell, C et al. (2017) Intranasal oxytocin increases facial expressivity, but not ratings of trustworthiness, in patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls. Psychol Med 47:1311-1322
B├╝rkner, Paul-Christian; Williams, Donald R; Simmons, Trenton C et al. (2017) Intranasal Oxytocin May Improve High-Level Social Cognition in Schizophrenia, But Not Social Cognition or Neurocognition in General: A Multilevel Bayesian Meta-analysis. Schizophr Bull 43:1291-1303
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