Oxytocin – “the love hormone” – may enhance compassion of people suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study conducted at the University of Haifa and Rambam Health Care Campus.

“The fact that the present study found, that Oxytocin may improve  compassion among patients with post-traumatic stress disorder toward women, provides new evidence that oxytocin may be able to improve the social behavior of these patients,” said Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa, who led the study.

The researchers define compassion as an outcome of emotional of empathy – the ability to recognize the feelings of others, and cognitive empathy – the ability to understand what another person feels and think.

The researchers –Shamay-Tsoory together with Professor Ehud Klein, Director of Psychiatry at the Rambam Medical Center, and Dr. Sharon Palgi, the Head of the psychologists’ team in the Psychiatric Day-Care Department at Rambam Medical Center, who conducted the study as part of her Ph.D. work at the University of Haifa –examined whether patients with post-traumatic stress disorder suffer from deficits in compassion.

They also looked at whether intranasal oxytocin, a hormone that’s known to modulate social behaviours, may enhance compassion in these patients.

The study included 32 patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and 30 healthy subjects with no history of psychiatric disorders.

Researchers said that the findings suggest that patients with PTSD suffer from significant and comprehensive deficits in compassion.

“The difficulty in the ability to feel compassion may be due to problems in the ability to identify, understand, and empathize with the other’s state of distress, i.e., difficulties in emotional and cognitive empathy. These difficulties in empathy and compassion may relate to social problems that characterize patients with post-traumatic stress disorder,” write the researchers.

The study also found that a single intranasal dose of Oxytocin enhances compassion, both in patients with PTSD and in healthy participants – but only toward women, while it does not affect compassion toward men.

This finding led the researchers to assume that in the future Oxytocin may be used as a psychobiological treatment option in couple therapy as it may increase positive communication behaviours among partners, particularly among couples where the husband suffers from PTSD.

The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.