A new study published Thursday finds that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin may be associated with symptoms found in autism, such as repetitive behaviors and anxiety. In addition, the researchers found differences in the levels of these neuropeptides, and their associated behaviors, between genders.
Oxytocin and vasopressin have been repeatedly implicated in social behaviors, including love, attachment, stress and aggression. Although best known for their roles in reproduction and homeostasis, these neuropeptides play a central role in the activation and expression of social behaviors and emotional states.
The researchers looked at 75 children, 35 girls and 40 boys, between the ages of 8 and 18. Forty were diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with 35 typically developing children. Blood plasma levels of oxytocin and vasopressin were taken and related to their functionality in the domains of language, social behavior, repetitive behavior and anxiety.
They found that the girls possessed significantly higher levels of oxytocin, whereas the boys had significantly higher levels of vasopressin, although there was no effect on whether they were diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Oxytocin was associated with higher anxiety in all girls, and with more functional language in both genders. Vasopressin levels were associated with a high rate of repetitive behaviors in girls with ASD but not associated in the boys with ASD.
Prior research has found that oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," is lower in those with ASD. However this research finds that not only is oxytocin associated with behaviors characteristic of autism, but there exist significant gender differences when it comes to the manners in which oxytocin and vasopressin act upon the symptoms of autism. This study sheds further light into the different presentations of autism between genders, as well as the underlying mechanisms behind behaviors often seen in ASD.
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