Children with autism who received the hormone oxytocin via a squirt in the nose exhibited more activity in brain regions associated with the processing of social information, according to a small study conducted by researchers from Yale University.
The study involved seven children who received just a single dose of oxytocin—the “love hormone” associated with human bonding. Researchers haven’t yet studied whether the differences in the brain activity will translate into changes in the children’s behavior.
However, experts are hopeful that oxytocin will one day be used to help autistic children better communicate and read social cues.
“These findings add to a growing body of evidence that points to oxytocin and oxytocin-based therapeutics as having great potential for addressing core social deficits in autism,” said Robert Ring, vice president for translational research at Autism Speaks, who was not involved with the study.
For the study, researchers gave seven children either a nasal spray containing oxytocin or an inactive placebo on two occasions.
As their brain activity was being measured with a functional MRI, the children were then given a series of tests to evaluate their responses to social cues and situations.
The oxytocin group showed increased activity in areas of the “social” brain, including the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal parietal junction, the fusiform gyrus and the superior temporal sulcus. The brain activity appeared as it would in a typically developing child’s brain, said lead study author Ilanit Gordon, a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale.
“For these seven kids, it seems the oxytocin really enhances brain activation in regions that are very important to how we function in the social world,” Gordon said.
Exactly what role oxytocin plays in autism isn’t known, Gordon said, but it’s been an intriguing area of research. A small study from the 1990s showed that individuals with autism tended to have lower blood levels of oxytocin, but those findings were never replicated, she said.
Current research has found that people with autism are more likely to have a particular difference in a gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor, but what the variation means functionally is unclear.
“Although enormously interesting, these findings are not sufficient to warrant use of oxytocin in clinical practice for autism today,” Ring said. “Rather, they give reason to be hopeful that down the road, the knowledge being generated by studies such as this can be translated into safe and effective medicines.”
Even if oxytocin is proven to be effective, said Gordon, parents should know that autism symptoms will not suddenly disappear. Instead, it’s more likely that oxytocin will be used along with behavioral therapies, perhaps to enhance social skills.
The study is continuing and will eventually include 40 kids aged 7 to 18, said Gordon.
Source: Yale University