New research suggests the hormone oxytocin may improve social skills in children with autism. People with autism who received oxytocin showed increased activity in the brain areas responsible for emotions, according to research published August 15. Gregor Domes, from the University of Friedberg in Germany, and his colleagues conducted the small study involving 28 subjects.
What is autism?
The National Institute of Mental Health describes autism spectrum disorder or ASD as “a group of developmental brain disorders.” The symptoms of autism can range from “mild to severely impaired.” Dr. Lane Strathearn of Baylor College of Medicine describes the main problems of people with autism as “social communication, repetitive behavior, and fixated or restricted interest," reports Medscape.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone. It is “released from the pituitary gland in the brain” according to WebMD. Oxytocin is the hormone that causes contractions during childbirth. Because it boosts trust, generosity and feelings of safety, it is known as the love hormone.
The researchers examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 14 people with autism and 14 control subjects. The study participants were scanned twice. Before one scan, the participants received intranasal oxytocin. Before the other scan, they received a placebo. During the scans, the participants did "a face-matching and a house-matching task.”
On the scans done after the administration of oxytocin, the researchers found “right amygdala activity to facial stimuli” in the participants with autism. Neuroscience Online defines the amygdala as the “integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation” in the brain. The researchers did not see this type of brain activity on the scans done after a placebo was given to those with autism.
These findings “suggest that 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.
Different results in earlier study
An Australian study, released July 18, reached the opposite conclusion. The study, done by the University of New South Wales, involved 38 boys with autism. Half of the boys were given intranasal oxytocin, and half were given a placebo. Professor Mark Dadds, one of the researchers said, “Oxytocin did not significantly improve emotion recognition, social interaction skills, repetitive behaviours, or general behavioural adjustment.”
Unlike the German study, the results of this study were based on observations of the children involved. Functional MRIs were not used.
On-going Research on Oxytocin and Autism
Additional research examining the effects of oxytocin on individuals with autism is underway in several institutions. Oxytocin in autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents ages 3-17 is a study in progress at the University of North Carolina. Bloorview Research Institute in Canada is recruiting participants for its study, Intranasal Oxytocin in the Treatment of Adolescents with ASD. The Oxytocin Inhalation Project is under way at the University of Cambridge in England.