Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone because it has a role in maternal bonding. But there could be another “love connection” associated with oxytocin, as researchers have shown that the hormone may help children with autism.
Oxytocin could be part of autism treatment
Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus in the brain, as well as secreted by two sex organs—the testes and the ovaries. In addition to maternal bonding, oxytocin is instrumental in transporting sperm within the reproductive system, stimulating lactation, and perhaps also has an effect on male sexual behavior.
In a new ongoing, double-blind, placebo-controlled study at Yale School of Medicine, a team of researchers have reported that oxytocin can increase brain function in areas that are associated with the processing of social information in young people who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To arrive at this conclusion, the team has been working with children and adolescents ages 7 to 18 years who have ASD.
The study, which is the first of its kind, involves administering oxytocin in a nasal spray to the study participants and then observing their brain function using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Investigators observed increased activity in areas linked to tasks involving seeing, hearing, and processing information associated with understanding other people.
Among the symptoms of autism are those associated with social interactions and relationships, including difficulty understanding another person’s feelings (lack of empathy), lack of interest in sharing enjoyment and interests of other people, and failure to establish friendships with people their own age.
Another study of oxytocin and autism
In a previous study conducted at Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University, researchers found evidence that oxytocin could help individuals who suffer with shyness by improving their empathy; that is, their ability to read others’ thoughts and feelings.
The oxytocin used in that study was in a nasal spray. According to one of the study’s authors, professor Jennifer Bartz of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the findings “highlight the potential oxytocin holds for treating social deficits in people with disorders marked by deficits in social functioning like autism.”
According to Ilanit Gordon, postdoctoral fellow with the Yale study, “Our findings provide the first, critical steps toward devising more effective treatments for the core social deficits in autism, which may involve a combination of clinical interventions with an administration of oxytocin.” The love hormone oxytocin may someday be a part of autism treatment.
Bartz JA et al. Oxytocin selectively improves empathic accuracy. Psychological Science 2010 Oct; 21(10): 1426-68
Yale School of Medicine
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