The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology

Research Article

The effects of oxytocin on social reward learning in humans

Rebecca Clark-Elforda1 c1, Pradeep J. Nathana1a2a3 c1, Bonnie Auyeunga1a6, Valerie Voona1, Akeem Sulea1a4, Ulrich Müllera1, Robert Dudasa1, Barbara J. Sahakiana1a5, K. Luan Phana7 and Simon Baron-Cohena1a6

a1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, UK

a2 New Medicines, UCB Pharma S.A., Belgium

a3 School of Psychology and Psychiatry, Monash University, Australia

a4 South Essex NHS Partnership Trust, UK

a5 MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge, UK

a6 Department of Psychiatry, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, UK

a7 Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA


It has been hypothesised that the mechanisms modulating social affiliation are regulated by reward circuitry. Oxytocin, previously shown to support affiliative behaviour and the processing of socio-emotional stimuli, is expressed in areas of the brain involved in reward and motivation. However, limited data are available that test if oxytocin is directly involved in reward learning, or whether oxytocin can modulate the effect of emotion on reward learning. In a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, within-group study design, 24 typical male volunteers were administered 24 IU of oxytocin or placebo and subsequently completed an affective reward learning task. Oxytocin selectively reduced performance of learning rewards, but not losses, from happy faces. The mechanism by which oxytocin may be exerting this effect is discussed in terms of whether oxytocin is affecting identity recognition via affecting the salience of happy faces. We conclude that oxytocin detrimentally affects learning rewards from happy faces in certain contexts.

(Received February 28 2013)

(Reviewed April 09 2013)

(Revised August 08 2013)

(Accepted August 23 2013)

(Online publication October 28 2013)

Key words

  • Cognition;
  • emotion;
  • oxytocin;
  • reward learning


c1 Address for correspondence: R. Clark-Elford or Pradeep J. Nathan, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, UK. Tel.: +44 (0) 1223 336583 Fax: +44 (0) 1223 336968 Email: or