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New study indicates oxytocin may provide treatment for autism

On April 28, 2014 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that the hormone oxytocin may promote social behavior in infant rhesus monkeys. Results of the study are published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus (a section of the brain responsible for hormone production) and stored in the pituitary gland (the "master gland" of the body; regulates many activities of other endocrine glands). Previous studies have shown that oxytocin plays a role in social behaviors in adults. This new study found that oxytocin increased positive social behaviors in infant monkeys. The findings indicate that oxytocin is a promising candidate for new treatments for developmental disorders that affect social skills (e.g., autism).

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.
Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.
Anita P. Kuan, Sources: Mayo Clinic, NIH
An infant rhesus monkey before and after returning the tongue protrusion gesture.
Anita P. Kuan/NIH

About 1 in 68 children are affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More people than ever before are being diagnosed with ASD. It is thought that this increase may be due to a broader definition of autism, better efforts in diagnosis, or a greater awareness about symptoms. But it is still possible that there has been a true increase in the number of autism cases. In recognition of the growing population of persons with ASD, Connecticut established the Division of Autism Services in 2006. The Division provides a range of services to children and adults with ASD and their families.

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by persistent difficulties in social communication and repetitive patterns of behavior. Symptoms vary from child to child but are typically recognized in the first two years of life. Recent research suggests that children with ASD do not respond to emotional cues because they may not pay attention to the same cues that others typically notice. For example, one study found that children with ASD focus on the mouth of the person speaking to them instead of on the eyes, which is where children usually tend to focus. Another study found that children with ASD often focus on repetitive movements linked to a sound, such as hand-clapping. Without the ability to interpret another person's tone of voice along with gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal communications, children with ASD may not respond in a conventional manner.

This recent study analyzed the effects of oxytocin on infant rhesus monkeys. Rhesus monkeys, like humans, engage in complex face-to-face mother–infant interactions. The researchers monitored two facial gestures associated with primate social interactions – lip smacking and tongue protrusion. Rhesus monkey mothers normally engage in lip smacking gestures with their infants. Though the tongue protrusion gesture is not generally seen in rhesus monkeys, they will imitate it when their human caregivers display it. Overall, the monkeys were more communicative after receiving oxytocin – i.e., they were more likely to engage in both lip smacking and tongue protrusion gestures after receiving oxytocin than after saline. This study provides the first evidence that oxytocin increases positive social behaviors in newborns.

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