People who feel extremely nervous at parties or when speaking in public may soon be able to calm themselves down by squirting a new drug in their noses, researchers say.
"It may represent a way of helping people with social anxiety disorder on an as-needed basis when they encounter a stressful situation," said the lead researcher, Michael Liebowitz, a clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University in New York.
Liebowitz and his colleagues reported the finding in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The drug is not on the market yet. It's so experimental that researchers are still calling it by its chemical name, 3b-androsta-4,16-dien-3-ol, or PH94B for short.
It works by mimicking pheromones, the chemicals that animals use to communicate alarm, sexual readiness, and other messages to each other.
Researchers peering into human noses long ago noticed an organ—the vomeronasal organ—similar to the ones animals use for detecting pheromones.
But many scientists thought it was a useless relic from an earlier time in human evolution. This is the first time anyone has shown that a drug might influence human behavior by stimulating the organ.
There are already several drugs that can be used to calm social fears, but they may take a long time to act or cause side effects.
To test PH94B, the researchers randomly divided 91 women diagnosed with social anxiety into two groups. One group got a placebo; the other group got the real thing.
The women then prepared and delivered a speech to a group of strangers.
All the women rated their anxiety on a scale of 0-100. The average anxiety score of the group taking the fake drug went from a 50.22 before the speech to 66.68 when they were giving the speech. The average score of the PH94B group went from 46.22 to 52.55.
A few people reported side effects like irritation in their noses, but these effects were not serious, and they weren't significantly different between the two groups.
The experiment impressed Carol Bernstein, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association. "I think it's worth further study," she said. But she wondered whether the effects of PH94B are really different from drugs already prescribed for social anxiety. And she emphasized that the drug needed to be tested in a larger group of people over a longer period of time before it is released to the public.