Posted by developmental-behavioral pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research
Today’s headlines reflect a lot of excitement about a small study showing that oxytocin nasal spray can change certain brain activity patterns in children with autism. In a trial with just 17 children mildly affected by autism, the researchers showed that one dose of this hormone affected aspects of brain function during an activity involving social judgments.
Does this mean that physicians should start prescribing oxytocin to treat ASD? Or that parents should be tempted to obtain this hormone over the counter? Not so fast …
Before oxytocin – or any drug – can be recommended for use, we need solid evidence that it’s helpful along with a thorough understanding of its side effects.
Previous research – including a pilot study funded by Autism Speaks – has shown that short-term use of oxytocin nasal spray can improve performance on experimental tests of social skills. The new study simply shows that a single dose can also change aspects of brain activity. This is no surprise. Since the brain governs behavior, changes in behavior must be accompanied by changes in brain activity.
The new study did not examine whether oxytocin has lasting effects on social behavior after the first dose. It did not examine the safety of oxytocin beyond a single dose. And it did not examine whether oxytocin is associated with real-life benefits.
Larger studies are now underway. Their results will help inform us of oxytocin’s real-life effects. These studies also will examine safety when this hormone is used for weeks or months at a stretch. This is of great importance because studies in animals have suggested that long-term use of oxytocin might worsen social bonding and may suppress the body’s own production of this hormone.
Clinical research has likewise suggested that, in some people, oxytocin can worsen social behavior, for example by increasing suspicion of strangers.
Much more research and results are needed before we understand whether oxytocin has true and lasting benefits, whether those benefits outweigh any side effects and, if so, who might be most likely to benefit from its use.