A nasal spray device with the hormone oxytocin shows promise in helping people with certain types of mental illness improve their social skills.

Oxytocin has been shown to play a role in relieving anxiety and promoting feelings of contentment.

Scientists at the University of Oslo hospital in Norway worked with Optinose, a Norwegian biotechnology company, to create the device.

"The patient inserts it into the mouth and one nostril," explained Dr. Per Djupesland, Optinose's co-founder. "The patient takes a deep breath, closes the lips around the mouthpiece, and exhales into the device. The airflow carries the drug particles deep into the nose."

And that means oxytocin may be able to get into the central nervous system faster than with other spray pumps on the market.

The device can also spray small doses of oxytocin, which is considered safer for the patient.

"A lot of mental illnesses are characterized by deficits in social dysfunction, such as autism and schizophrenia," said Daniel Quintana, a research fellow at the Oslo hospital. "But there aren't any actual treatments which specifically target social dysfunction. So oxytocin has actually generated a lot of interest in its potential to treat social dysfunction."

Previous research has shown that with just a single dose of the drug, schizophrenic and autistic patients are more likely to look directly at someone during a conversation, rather than avoid the person's gaze.

"Most information, when it comes to how others are thinking and feeling, is transmitted through this eye region," Quintana said, "so by improving gaze to the eye region, you improve your ability to understand how others are thinking and feeling."

The Oslo scientists asked volunteer patients to react to photos of people with happy, angry and neutral facial expressions.

"In our experiment, we found that people who were administered a low dose of intranasal ocytocin rated the neutral faces as less angry, compared to when they were given the placebo spray," Quintana said.

The team will continue its research by giving autistic patients a low dose of oxytocin twice a day.