Low Levels of Hormone Linked to Social Inabilities for Children with ASD

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According to a recent study conducted by Stanford University, there is a prevalent connection between low levels of the hormone vasopressin, and the way children on the autism spectrum respond to social situations.

Vasopressin, a small-protein hormone, is similar to oxytocin in the sense that it plays a significant role in social behavior. This hormone has been found to contribute to the struggle that autistic children face in understanding the behaviors and actions of those around them.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine measured hormone levels simultaneously in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of 28 individuals, and found that vasopressin levels in the blood accurately reflected that of the brain. The researchers then recruited over 150 child participants (between the ages of 3 and 12) for behavioral testing. Fifty-seven of these children had been diagnosed with autism, forty-seven had a sibling on the spectrum, and fifty-five were neurotypical without a sibling on the spectrum.

Each child provided a blood sample that was measured for vasopressin. They then participated in psychiatric assessments of their neurocognitive abilities, as well as social responsiveness and their ability to recognize emotions in others. The researchers focused on a particular social trait, known as “theory of mind” – the ability to understand that other individuals have their own opinions, feelings, and perspectives. Many individuals with autism have relatively poor “theory of mind”, making it difficult to connect with others and form relationships.

In all three groups of children studied, there was a wide range of vasopressin levels. The neurotypical children had similar scores on theory of mind tests regardless of their vasopressin levels. However, those with low vasopressin levels that were on the autism spectrum had a significant link to low theory of mind ability.

Karen Parker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study, states that they are now looking into the possibility of vasopressin treatment, in order to improve social ability in autistic children.

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