Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is active in the central nervous system and is generally considered to be involved in prosocial behaviors and feelings. In light of its documented positive effect on maternal behaviour, we designed a study to ascertain whether oxytocin exerts any therapeutic effects on depressive symptoms in women affected by maternal postnatal depression. A group of 16 mothers were recruited in a randomized double-blind study: the women agreed to take part in a brief course of psychoanalytic psychotherapy (12 sessions, once a week) while also being administered, during the 12-week period, a daily dose of intranasal oxytocin (or a placebo). The pre-treatment evaluation also included a personality assessment of the major primary-process emotional command systems described by Panksepp (1998) and a semi-quantitative assessment by the therapist of the mother's depressive symptoms and of her personality. No significant effect on depressive symptomatology was found following the administration of oxytocin (as compared to a placebo) during the period of psychotherapy. Nevertheless, a personality trait evaluation of the mothers, conducted in our overall sample group, showed a decrease in the narcissistic trait only within the group who took oxytocin. The depressive (dysphoric) trait was in fact significantly affected by psychotherapy (this effect was only present in the placebo group so it may reflect a positive placebo effect enhancing the favorable influence of psychotherapy on depressive symptoms) but not in the presence of oxytocin. Therefore, the neuropeptide would appear to play some role in the modulation of cerebral functions involved in the self-centered (narcissistic) dimension of the suffering that can occur with postnatal depression. Based on these results, there was support for our hypothesis that what is generally defined as postnatal depression may include disturbances of narcissistic affective balance, and oxytocin supplementation can counteract that type of affective disturbance. The resulting improvements in wellbeing, reflected in better self-centering in post-partuent mothers, may in turn facilitate better interpersonal acceptance of (and interactions with) the child and thereby, improved recognition of the child's needs.
ASJC Scopus subject areas