Have Scientists Really Found The Next Viagra?

Little blue pills spilling out of a bottle

There was a recent media frenzy about a new study suggesting that the hormone oxytocin may improve male sexual desire and functioning. Among some of the more provocative headlines I came across were “Oxytocin could be new Viagra” and “Forget Viagra, the 'Cuddle drug' could be the new way to boost performance in the bedroom.” These and numerous other headlines around the world made very bold claims about oxytocin’s ability to enhance men’s sexual abilities. But were they justified? A closer look at the research reveals yet another case of the media jumping the gun and making sensationalized claims that go far beyond the available science.

The study that received so much media hype involved a case study of a married man with Asperger’s syndrome who took the hormone oxytocin daily in the form of a nasal spray [1]. In case you aren’t familiar with Asperger’s syndrome, it is a disorder in which people have difficulties in social interaction and communication. In this particular case, the client sought help because was having relationship and sexual problems with his wife. He was treated with oxytocin because research has found that this hormone plays an important role in helping us to develop social bonds with others (e.g., previous studies have found that it facilitates bonding between sexual partners, mothers and their infants, etc.). This kind of treatment is not all that unusual—in fact, doctors have increasingly been prescribing oxytocin to patients with Asperger’s and other autism-spectrum disorders in recent years to improve their social abilities and have achieved some degree of success with it.

The researchers found that this client did indeed experience some social benefits, but they were overshadowed by some dramatic and unexpected increases in sexual functioning, including enhanced sex drive, improved erections, and more satisfying orgasms. The client’s wife also reported that her husband was more affectionate and “touchy,” which generated more sexual and non-sexual intimacy. These effects disappeared as soon as he stopped taking the hormone, and reappeared when he started taking it again.

I found one other case study in the medical literature (which was not mentioned in any of the recent media reports) that actually found similar sexual side effects for a woman who was given oxytocin to help with her breastfeeding [2]. Although compelling, these two individual examples are hardly enough evidence to claim that oxytocin is the sexual performance drug of the future! You don’t need to be a trained scientist to recognize that case studies have some inherent limitations. For one thing, when you examine just one individual at a time, it becomes impossible to generalize their results to other people. Just because a drug works in one or two individuals doesn’t mean it will have the same effects in others because everyone’s brains and bodies respond differently to substances. Also, when we want to make statements about the effectiveness of drugs, researchers typically conduct placebo controlled experiments so that they can compare people who have taken the drug to people who have taken a sugar pill or nothing at all. In a case study, we lack the comparison levels that would allow us to make truly meaningful success claims about a drug. Thus, it is far too early to get our hopes up over oxytocin and we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions about its effects at this time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t believe every headline you read about sex because sometimes they just aren’t accurate. And if something sounds too good to be true, try to consult the original source material if at all possible to ensure that you aren’t reading a biased or misleading report. Also, on a side note, if you’re a science-minded college student, please consider a career in journalism because we desperately need more responsible and informed science reporters!

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[1] MacDonald, K., & Feifel, D. (2012). Dramatic improvement in sexual function induced by intranasal oxytocin. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9, 1407-1410.

[2] Anderson-Hunt, M., & Dennerstein, L. (1994). Increased female sexual response after oxytocin. British Medical Journal, 309, 929.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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