Blood-Oxytocin Levels and its Relation to Autism Disorders

Despite recent reports saying otherwise, a new study states that children with autism actually have normal levels of oxytocin in their blood system.  Oxytocin, a hormone that affects social functioning, was found to be of similar levels among both children with autism, and children without.

For years, many suspected that low levels of oxytocin were a contributing factor in autism development. However, research in the past has only seen mixed results in trying to establish this link. In this new study, the largest-ever to test the connection, the range of blood oxytocin levels was in the same range as that of two comparison groups (which consisted of children with autistic siblings, and children without autistic siblings).

Dr. Karen Parker, along with her colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that higher oxytocin levels were linked to better social functioning in all three of the groups. Although all children with autism have some type of social deficit, the study found that deficits were worst in those with the lowest blood oxytocin. In the comparison groups, the social skills also fell in a range that correlated to oxytocin levels.  Dr. Parker states, “Oxytocin appears to be a universal regulator of social functioning in humans.” She continues, “That encompasses both typically developing children as well as those with severe social deficits we see in children with autism”.

Dr. Antonio Hardan, senior author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, states, “It didn’t matter if you were a typically developing child, a sibling or an individual with autism: your social ability was related to a certain extent to your oxytocin levels, which is very different from what people have speculated.”  In addition to examining blood oxytocin levels, they examined small variations in gene coding for the oxytocin receptors. These receptor variants are correlated to higher levels of social ability. “Oxytocin is a vulnerability factor that has to be accounted for, but it’s not the only thing leading to the development of autism”, Dr. Hardan adds.

Dr. Eric Hollander, Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council, Director at the Spectrum Neuroscience and Treatment Institute, and Director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, has focused much of his research on the impact of oxytocin, stating, “I think that this is an important area for future development to understand the underlying root cause of ASDs and develop treatments to help manage symptoms.” According to Dr. Hollander’s research, 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.

According to Dr. Hollander, the effects of oxytocin include improved social cognition, and the improvements can be preserved for a two-week period on a single dose. Furthermore, the findings from the recent study by Stanford show that oxytocin may prove useful in treating a subset of children with autism. The study suggests that some children with autism, such as the ones that have low levels of oxytocin, or those with oxytocin receptor gene variants associated with poor social functioning, can potentially benefit from oxytocin-like drugs.

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