The hormone oxytocin may improve social behaviors in children with autism, according to a review article published on September 16. Because of oxytocin’s role in social behavior, current evidence suggests it could be an effective treatment for social and repetitive behavior problems, reports Dr. David Cochran of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and his colleagues.
The reviewers found oxytocin involvement in "social decision making, evaluating and responding to social stimuli, mediating social interactions, and forming social memories.” They noted that other studies found "dysfunction in oxytocin processing" in children with autism. Cochran and his colleagues also remarked that there is some evidence of a causal relationship between autism and the oxytocin receptor gene, OXTR.
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone most commonly known for its role in childbirth. According to WebMD, it is "released from the pituitary gland in the brain.” Many people refer to oxytocin as the “love hormone” because it promotes feelings of trust and generosity.
Other studies involving oxytocin and autism
Several studies investigating the relationship between oxytocin and autism were published earlier this year. Some of these studies support the idea that oxytocin can help improve some of the symptoms of autism while others reached the opposite conclusion.
A study, done by the University of New South Wales, Australia, concluded, “Oxytocin did not significantly improve emotion recognition, social interaction skills, repetitive behaviours or general behavioural adjustment.” The results of that study were released in July 2013.
A German study published August 15, remarked “oxytocin might promote face processing and eye contact in individuals with ASD” which would improve related social skills. This study, “Effects of Intranasal Oxytocin on the Neural Basis of Face Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder,” is published in Biological Psychiatry.
Current review article
Cochran cautions that although research results look promising for oxytocin, “proper clinical trials” must be completed before final conclusions can be reached. “The Role of Oxytocin in Psychiatric Disorders: A Review of Biological and Therapeutic Research Findings” is published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.
The National Institutes for Health have more information on clinical trials involving autism and oxytocin.