Oxytocin normalizes brain activity in autism

A study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first ever to demonstrate that administering the “love hormone” oxytocin to children with autism leads to the normalization of the reward and emotion centers in the brains of those with the condition.

Autistic children typically have lower levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin in their blood, along with impaired social and communication skills. While studies have been performed before on the effects of oxytocin on behavior, this study represents the first time anyone has looked at the effects of the oxytocin treatment on the brains of autistic children. The finding suggests that oxytocin may prove to be an effective treatment after further research, said Kevin Pelphrey, study author and professor in the Yale Child Study Center.

The study was performed by treating 21 autistic children, aged eight to 16, with an oxytocin nasal spray. Subjects viewed social stimuli, a pair of eyes and a nonsocial stimuli, a vehicle, and resulting brain activity was measured in an fMRI scanner.

While activity in the right amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex is typically irregularly low in autistic children, the authors found a significantly greater response in these regions in the sample of autistic children who had been treated with oxytocin upon viewing social cues than autistic controls not treated with oxytocin. The treatment also resulted in suppressed brain activity when the children were exposed to nonsocial images, indicating that oxytocin worked to help children differentiate their responses to social and nonsocial stimuli.

Despite the promise of these findings, additional inquiry into areas such as optimal dosage is needed before oxytocin can become common clinical practice, said Ilanit Gordon, a study author and postdoctoral fellow in the Yale Child Studies Center.

Previous studies on oxytocin’s effect on the behavior of autistic children have had mixed results, and Pelphrey added that the results of a large ongoing behavioral study of 300 autistic children at the University of North Carolina will be influential for the field. Pelphrey himself plans to conduct a second study on the effects of treating autistic toddlers with combined oxytocin and behavior therapies to aid brain development.

Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone” in the media because it is released in particularly large amounts upon orgasm. It is currently administered to induce labor and lactation and has minimal side effects apart from causing fluctuations in blood pressure. Pelphrey said oxytocin should have the same effect regardless of a patient’s age.

More than 35,000 children are born each year with autism spectrum disorder.

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