In a study published online on December 2, 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators from the Yale School of Medicine report that children with autism were better able to process social information after given a single dose of oxytocin, a hormone administered nasally.
In the study, 17 participants age 8-16.5 were randomly given either oxytocin or placebo nasal spray during a task which involved social perception. The participants were then given MRI’s to see how the hormone affected their brain.
According to Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Committee, the scans revealed that the brains of children who received the oxytocin were more active. They also resembled the brains of non-autistic children more closely.
Dr. Hollander told Everyday Health that non-autistic individuals naturally receive oxytocin and other hormones that release good feelings when engaging with others. This does not happen to people with autism spectrum disorder.
“Oxytocin tells people to pay attention to social information,” Dr. Hollander says. “It tells the brain to pay attention, and provides a reward for that attention. In this study, regions of reward in the brain appeared to be more active after receiving the oxytocin, which could make autistic children more comfortable in social settings.”
In their statement of significance, researchers wrote: “These discoveries are particularly important given the urgent need for treatments that target the core social dysfunction in ASD.”
While these groundbreaking results are the first to be published, oxytocin nasal spray is under investigation in many universities and labs across the country. Further studies with more participants will show just how robust and generalizable the effects of oxytocin really are.
“This won’t reverse autism,” Dr. Hollander said. “But it may become an essential part of treatment, especially when you add it to existing therapies. Enhancing oxytocin is very important, but it may not be the whole story. It’s part, but not the whole, equation.”
To view the published article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/27/1312857110
By: Stephanie A. Millman