Oxytocin selectively modulates brain processing of disgust in Huntington's disease gene carriers
People with Huntington's disease (HD) exhibit altered processing of emotional information, especially disgust and other negative emotions. These impairments are likely due to the effects of the disease on underlying brain networks. We examined whether oxytocin, when given intranasally, would normalise aberrant brain reactivity to emotional faces in participants with the gene-expansion for HD. In a double-blind placebo-controlled cross-over design, we measured brain activity, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, whilst nine medication-free HD carriers, and ten control participants viewed emotional (disgust, fear, angry, sad, surprise, happy) and neutral faces, following acute intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) and placebo. Subjective mood changes were assessed before and after the neuroimaging on each visit. Permutation-based non-parametric statistical testing for the whole brain, showed significant group × drug interactions (p's < 0.05, TFCE corrected) in areas of the left frontal pole, superior frontal, and middle frontal gyri cortically, and left putamen and thalamus sub-cortically. Parameter estimates extracted from the middle frontal gyrus and putamen showed that, under placebo, the HD group had lower brain activity to disgust stimuli, compared with controls. After intranasal oxytocin, the pattern of activation to disgust stimuli was normalised in the HD group to similar levels as controls; eight of the nine HD carriers showed increased response in the middle frontal gyrus, and seven of the nine HD carriers showed increased response in the putamen. The observed effects of oxytocin occurred in the absence of changes in subjective mood or state anxiety. These findings provide early evidence for a physiological role of oxytocin in the neuropathology of HD. Our findings are the first reported oxytocin effects in a neurodegenerative disease. Further research should examine the therapeutic benefits of oxytocin in alleviating emotional and social cognition deficits in HD and related disorders.