The articles and research are mounting with regards to Oxytocin’s possible role in assisting people with autism. Dr. Eric Hollander, Director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center and Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council will speak at the ICare4Autism International Autism Conference in August and has been at the forefront of this research since his first publication on the administration of oxytocin to patients with autism in 2003. Oxytocin has a long established role in milk ejection and uterine contraction during labor. Recent research suggests that oxytocin and the closely related peptide vasopressin play an important role in the development of trust, empathy, social bonding, social affiliation, social threat, perseverative behaviors and overall social behavior and the salience or importance of social signals.
Early observations stem from work in voles, those little furry creatures (they are mouselike rodents related to lemmings). The researchers found two types of voles. Those that were asocial and those that were very social with strong affiliation bonds. The social voles had more oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in their brains than the a social voles. The original studies done by Hollander’s team on the effects of oxytocin infusion in adults with autism showed that oxytocin reduced perseverative behaviors (Neuropsychopharmacology, 2003), improved the retention of social cognition memories (Biological Psychiatry, 2007). His team’s recent work with intranasal oxytocin has demonstrated effects on social cognition (i.e. recognizing emotions, enhancing empathy; decreasing social stress) and on repetitive behaviors in patients with autism, borderline personality disorder, and healthy adults with social deficits. Work also examines the effect of oxytocin on brain circuitry and gene expression. Oxytocin stimulates receptors in the regions of the brains that involve social memory and social affiliation, like the amygdala and the thalamus. Further tests on mice and humans using oxytocin and vasopressin show that gene variations may affect response of these hormones on social memory and social cognition.
To quote Dr. Hollander in 2010, “The studies were in both healthy adults and adults with autism. We gave oxytocin via a nasal delivery and by intravenous route. It improved strong trust bonds. It improved emotions that could be read in the eyes. In a study of young adults (above 18 years of age) on the spectrum, Oxytocin therapy lessened the stimming and reduced repetitive behavior. Delivered intravenously and intranasally, it improved social cognition, and improvements were preserved for a two-week period on a single dose.” This work with oxytocin has been replicated by researchers in Australia (Adam Guastella, Biological Psychiatry 2010) in children with autism where it improved the recognition of emotions and in France (Andari et al, PNAS, 2010) in adults with autism where it improved eye gaze and the choice of appropriate social interaction partners.