Autism-Pitocin Connection?

June 1, 2012

This week’s “Got Questions?” answer is from Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., former Autism Speaks director of research for environmental sciences.

I have heard about a correlation between labor induction with synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) and autism. What do you know about that connection?

Oxytocin is a natural hormone that plays a role in many social behaviors, and some children with autism have abnormally low levels of this hormone in the bloodstream. In fact, Autism Speaks and others are funding considerable scientific research into the possibility of using oxytocin to ease social difficulties in children and adults on the autism spectrum. 

Paradoxically, some scientists have wondered whether inducing labor with an injection of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) could increase the risk of autism in children genetically predisposed to this developmental disorder. The possibility stems from the hypothetical idea that an “overload” of oxytocin during early brain development might reduce the number of oxytocin receptors in an infant’s brain.

Research has not supported this suggestion. In 2003, for example, researchers at the University of Utah compared the frequency of Pitocin-induced labor in the births of 25 boys with autism with that involving the births of 41 boys with either typical development or mental retardation. They found no difference. Admittedly, the study was small and, so, limited in its conclusions.

Currently Autism Speaks is funding a far larger study looking at autism rates in the children of some 10,500 women who received Pitocin to induce labor and 1,800 women who received Atosiban, a medication with the opposite effect. An oxytocin inhibitor, Atosiban is used in Israel and much of Europe to delay premature labor. In theory, its action might likewise affect autism risk—one way or the other—during early brain development. This large study, conducted in Israel, also enrolled a control group of women who received alternative or no medications to induce labor. Their children are being carefully screened for autism spectrum disorder, and those who screen positive will be further evaluated for a definitive diagnosis. In addition, their DNA will be collected and screened for known autism-risk genes. The final results are now being analyzed.

Thus, to date, we have no scientific evidence implicating Pitocin in causing or increasing the risk for autism.  When results of our currently-funded research are available, we will share them with you.

Explore more of the studies Autism Speaks is funding (by topic or location) with our Grant Search. Special thanks to our supporters for making this research possible. 

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