Oxytocin May Play Bigger Role in Social Interaction than Previously Thought

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine published a study on September 12th in which oxytocin was found to be important in a wider range of social interactions than previously considered, a situation which may support oxytocin trials for people with autism spectrum disorders.

Oxytocin has been believed to play a crucial role in establishing trust between people and has previously been administered to children with autism spectrum disorders during trials. There is evidence to suggest that difficulty with social interaction, a hallmark of autism-spectrum disorders, may be related to oxytocin.

“People with autism-spectrum disorders may not experience the normal reward the rest of us all get from being with our friends,” said, Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, who is the study’s senior author. “For them, social interactions can be downright painful. So we asked, what in the brain makes you enjoy hanging out with your buddies?”

In Malenka’s study, scientists discovered a way that oxytocin alters activity in the part of the brain that causes us to experience the pleasant sensation neuroscientists call “reward”.

The study found that mice have oxytocin receptors at an important location in the region of the brain that is central to the reward system. If oxytocin’s activity in that area is blocked, mice—animals that normally show a preference for spending time with others—are much less interested in socializing.

Oxytocin when released in this area of the brain liberates serotonin, which causes a happy feeling. When oxytocin is blocked, the serotonin isn’t freed and therefore the good feeling, the reward of socializing, is inhibited.

Gül Dölen, MD, PhD who conducted the study with Malenka, explained that they’ve identified a particular type of serotonin receptor as being important for social reward—causing people to feel good when they socialize.

“Drugs that selectively act on this receptor aren’t clinically available yet, but our study may encourage researchers to start looking at drugs that target it for the treatment of diseases such as autism, where social interactions are impaired.”

Dr. Eric Hollander, Director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorders Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center and Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council discussed Inflammation, Temperature and Personalized Therapeutics of ASD at the 2013 ICare4Autism Autism Conference held at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in June. His studies suggest, “Oxytocin has potent effects on social cognition and lower order repetitive behaviors and clinical response may be magnified in syndromal forms of ASD.”

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