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Oxytocin enhances activity in social centers of brain in children with autism

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In a study published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers at the Yale Child Study Center has found that nasally administering doses of oxytocin increases activity in the social centers of the brain in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Prior research has found that oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," is lower in those with ASD. Oxytocin has been repeatedly implicated in social behaviors, including love, attachment, stress, aggression and playing a central role in the activation and expression of social behaviors and emotional states.

The team of researchers looked at 17 participants between the ages of 8 and 16, all diagnosed with ASD, each of whom were randomly given two doses of a nasal inhalant of either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo. The doses were separated by 72 hours in order to allow any effects from the first dosage to wane. Following treatment, the children were placed in a functional M.R.I. machine and given tests of social-emotional perception, in the form of matching emotion labels to a set of eyes, as well as non-social tests consisting of matching vehicle parts.

Upon analyzing the results of these tests and brain activity measured in the f.M.R.I. scans, the scientists found increased brain activity in the social centers of the brain, such as the dorsal and ventral striatum, precuneus, posterior cingulate, left inferior parietal lobule, left posterior superior temporal sulcus, left parahippocampal gyrus, and right premotor cortex. These are all regions associated with increased activity during social judgements (the emotions task) and decreased activity during non-social judgements (the vehicle task).

Furthermore, the team took salivary samples from each participant and found that those with higher oxytocin levels in their saliva had higher activity in the amygdala, another region of the brain associated with social functioning. The researchers noted that this simple salivary sample may be an indicator of which people may be most receptive to a potential pharmaceutical treatment using oxytocin.

The team did not see any significant differences in scoring on the social-emotional tests, but attributed this to the stress of answering questions while in an f.M.R.I. machine.

This study has some limitations, such as having a small sample size and the notion that this treatment may only be effective on those with less severe ASD. The researchers also emphasized that treatment of people diagnosed with ASD cannot be started solely based on the results of this research.

However, the results of this study do strongly imply that oxytocin levels affect social functioning in children with autism on a neurological level and implies that the brains of those with ASD are plastic and may be responsive to treatment.

What isn't as clear is how this will translate to long-term behavioral functioning, such as increased eye contact and attending during conversations with others, with continued treatment. This could change with the forthcoming federally funded study which will look at the effects of nasally administered oxytocin on 300 participants.

While the research team noted that oxytocin is not a cure or a sole treatment for autism, they agreed that an increase of oxytocin levels in the brain may essentially prime social regions of the brain to be open to social input from the environment, leading to a potential increase in effectiveness of early intervention and behavioral therapies.

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