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Decreased CSF oxytocin relates to measures of social cognitive impairment in Huntington's disease patients

Hellem MNN, Cheong RY, Tonetto S, Vinther-Jensen T, Hendel RK, Larsen IU, Nielsen TT, Hjermind LE, Vogel A, Budtz-Jørgensen E, Petersén Å and Nielsen JE.

Parkinsonism and Related Disorders. 99: 23-29 (2022). 


Objective: Huntington's disease (HD) is an inherited neurodegenerative disease with motor, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms. Non-motor symptoms like depression and altered social cognition are proposed to be caused by dysfunction of the hypothalamus. We measured the hypothalamic neuropeptide oxytocin in plasma and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in a cohort of HD gene expansion carriers (HDGECs), compared the levels to healthy HD family controls and correlated oxytocin levels to disease progression and social cognition.

Methods: We recruited 113 HDGECs and 33 controls. Psychiatric and cognitive symptoms were evaluated, and social cognition was assessed with the Emotion Hexagon test, Reading the Mind in the Eyes and The Awareness of Social Inference Test. The levels of oxytocin in CSF and blood were analyzed by radioimmunoassay.

Results: We found the level of oxytocin in CSF to be significantly lower by 33.5% in HDGECs compared to controls (p = 0.016). When dividing the HDGECs into groups with or without cognitive impairment, we found the oxytocin level to be significantly lower by 30.3% in the HDGECs with cognitive symptoms (p = 0.046). We found a statistically significant correlation between the level of oxytocin and scores on social cognition (Reading the Mind in the Eyes p = 0.0019; Emotion Hexagon test: p = 0.0062; The Awareness of Social Inference Test: p = 0.002).

Conclusions: This is the first study to measure oxytocin in the CSF of HDGECs. We find that HDGECs have a significantly lower level of oxytocin compared to controls, and that the level of oxytocin may represent an objective and comparable measure that could be used as a state biomarker for impairment of social cognition. We suggest treatment trials to evaluate a potential effect of oxytocin on social cognition in HD.

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