Oxytocin Nasal Spray Boosts Social Skills in Kids With Autism

Young children with autism who completed a five-week treatment with a nasal spray of the hormone oxytocin experienced significant improvements in social, emotional, and behavioral issues, according to new research at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

Over the last decade, researchers at the Brain and Mind Centre have been documenting the benefits of oxytocin in humans, revealing that it enhances eye gaze, emotion recognition, and memory across a range of populations. This is the first clinical trial investigating the effectiveness, tolerability, and safety of intranasally administered oxytocin in young children with autism.

Autism is defined as a group of complex brain developmental disorders characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication, and stereotypical and repetitive behaviors. It is diagnosed in approximately one in 68 children, and effective interventions remain limited.

While behavioral therapies can improve social, emotional, and behavioral problems, these interventions are typically time-consuming (40 hours per week), remain costly and show mixed results. There is currently no medical treatment for these problems.

For the study, 31 children between the ages of three and eight received a twice daily course of oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray. Overall, the nasal spray was well tolerated and the most common adverse events were thirst, urination, and constipation.

“We found that following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home, and our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre,” said autism expert Dr. Adam Guastella of the Brain and Mind Centre.

This is the first time a medical treatment has shown this type of success for children with autism and the findings reinforce outcomes from a longer sustained program of research by this team.

Study co-author and co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre, Dr. Ian Hickie noted the new findings are a critical first step in the development of medical treatments for the social deficits that characterize autism.

“The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational, and technology-based therapies is very exciting,” said Hickie.

The researchers are seeking to further develop the potential of oxytocin-based interventions within the context of good multi-disciplinary care for autism. The next step is to understand exactly how oxytocin changes brain circuitry to improve social behavior, and to document how related treatments might be used to boost established social learning interventions.

The findings are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Source: University of Sydney