The Link between Oxytocin Levels in Blood and Cerebrospinal Fluid

In recent years, scientists have been assessing levels of oxytocin in the brain, a hormone responsible for various social behaviors. Researchers have now found direct evidence that blood oxytocin levels in children are strongly linked to levels of oxytocin in cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain. 

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that low levels of oxytocin in blood as well as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are strongly correlated to levels of high anxiety. Anxiety is highly common in individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. Dr. Karen Parker, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, states, “So many psychiatric disorders involve disruptions to social functioning”. She continues, “This study helps scientifically validate the use of measuring oxytocin in the blood, and suggests that oxytocin may be a biomarker of anxiety. It raises the possibility that oxytocin could be considered as a therapeutic target across a variety of psychiatric disorders.”

In order to collect CSF, patients must undergo an invasive lumbar puncture procedure. Therefore, Dr. Parker and her team studied a group of volunteers who needed lumbar punctures for medical reasons. Their group consisted of 27 individuals, ranging in age from 4 to 64. Researchers tested the oxytocin levels in the CSF, as well as collected blood samples during the time the CSF was obtained. They were questioned about their levels of anxiety (with parents answering the questionnaire on behalf of the children enrolled in the study).

Dr. Dean Carson, postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, states, “The fact that we measured blood and CSF at the same time shows for the first time that there’s a tight relationship between those two components and anxiety”. As a result, Dr. Carson and Dr. Parker wanted to know if oxytocin could treat anxiety in children with autism. Dr. Carson states, “Our belief is that there are oxytocin responders and nonresponders. Being able to have objective measures of psychiatric [disorders] will really enhance early diagnosis and measures of treatment outcomes.”

Dr. Eric Hollander, Director of the Compulsive, Impulsive and Autism Spectrum Disorder Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, and Chairman of the ICare4Autism Advisory Council, has been studying oxytocin and its impact on individuals with autism for over 10 years. According to studies conducted by Dr. Hollander and his colleagues, oxytocin infusion in adults with autism resulted in the retention of social cognition memories, as well as improved social cognition (such as recognizing emotions, enhancing empathy, and decreasing social stress). Oxytocin stimulates receptors in the regions of the brains that involve social affiliation, like the amygdala and the thalamus. Therefore, low levels of oxytocin would indicate a higher susceptibility to social stress and anxiety.

“I was amazed by how beautiful the data looked,” Dr. Parker noted, stating that the correlations between oxytocin and anxiety were surprisingly strong for a small study, and provide interesting leads for future research. “I think it opened up a lot more doors.” With social anxiety affecting up to 90% of children with autism, children may truly benefit from levels of oxytocin therapy.

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