Hormone May Help Autistic Patients Bond with Others

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One of the most difficult experiences of a parent of a child with autism is the inability to bond and connect. A small French study has found that treatment with a hormone called oxytocin may help those with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome to improve social interaction and enhances feelings of trust.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus in the brain that plays a crucial role in enhancing social and emotional behavior, sometimes being called a “love hormone”. It also heightens social awareness and generosity and trust in people. Previous studies found that those with autism were deficient in the blood levels of this oxytocin.

The term “high functioning autism” means that the patients retain normal intellectual and linguistic skills, but are unable to engage in social situations and avoid eye contact with others. It is also sometimes called “mild autism”.

Elissar Andari, Angela Sirigu, and colleagues at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Bron France administered oxytocin or a placebo in the form of a nasal spray to 13 autistic subjects with an average age of 26 and 13 healthy controls matched for age and sex. The subjects played a computer game called Cyberball which features social interaction with three types of fictional characters. One player, called “good” always returned the ball. Another called “bad” never returned the ball. And a third player sometimes returned the ball.

The team measured performance, including the distribution of ball tosses to the game’s “good” and “bad” characters in response to social cues, the participant’s emotional response to the characters, and their eye movements as they scanned pictures of faces. Each game was restarted ten times to allow the patient to identify the different profiles and adjust their actions accordingly.

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Those given the oxytocin directed the ball significantly more often to the “good” players than to the “bad” ones. They also reported feeling more trust toward those players and gazed longer at their faces, particularly making eye contact. The authors write that during the simulation the “patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect.”

Blood levels of oxytocin were also measured in the autistic patients and found to be low. The healthy patients had levels that averaged 7.28 pg/mL, while the autistic patients had levels of only 1.09 pg/mL. After inhalation of the hormone, the levels rose to 2.66 pg/mL.

The findings of the study are published in the February 15, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The authors intend to extend the study, particularly focusing on the long-term effects of oxytocin, because the hormone is known to be short-acting and has trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier. Further study also needs to be conducted in situations in everyday life to understand its potential.

Also, as Clara Lajonchere – vice president of clinical programs for Autism Speaks – said to the Washington Post, “We have to be careful about the safety and efficacy of oxytocin on the pediatric population.” Most studies of oxytocin have been conducted on adults.

Elissar Andari, Jean-René Duhamel, Tiziana Zalla, Evelyn Herbrecht, Marion Leboyer, and Angela Sirigu. Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910249107

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