Oxytocin improves social skills in children with autism, according to a study published December 2. After receiving just one dose of oxytocin, children with autism showed increased “social brain activity,” report researchers from Yale School of Medicine.
In this study, children with autism were given oxytocin through a nasal spray. Next, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity while the children performed tasks involving social judgment. The researchers observed increased brain activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotion recognition and reward.
“We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo,” said Ilanit Gordon, Ph.D., a study author. “Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism.”
The study was small, involving just 17 children with high functioning autism. The children were between the ages of 8 and 16. Each child was tested twice, once with oxytocin and once with a placebo.
The results of this study are similar to a German study published earlier this year. In the German study, intranasal oxytocin was given to 14 people with autism. The researchers performed fMRIs on the study participants. They concluded that oxytocin improved face processing and eye contact in people with autism.
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone. It is released into the blood stream from the pituitary gland, according to the Society for Endocrinology. Oxytocin is the hormone that causes contractions during childbirth. It is known as the love or cuddle hormone because it boosts trust, generosity and feelings of safety.
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disorders, according to Boston Children's Hospital. Common symptoms of autism are:
- difficulty with social interactions
- difficulty with language and other forms of communication
- unusual, restricted or repetitive interests or behaviors
Autism is more common in boys than girls. There isn't a specific test to diagnose autism. It is diagnosed based on a child's behavior and development. Typical treatments include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and behavioral therapy. Early diagnosis and treatment often improves children's behaviors and skills. The video accompanying this article has additional information about autism.
The study, “Oxytocin enhances brain function in children with autism,” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.