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Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?

Writing in Science, researchers explain why it’s too early to prescribe oxytocin to enhance social skills; see promise ahead
February 19, 2015

Recent studies have fanned interest in using oxytocin nasal spray to improve social abilities in children and adults on the autism spectrum. In this week’s Science magazine, two leading autism researchers explain why it’s not yet appropriate for doctors to start prescribing this hormone treatment.

“Oxytocin remains an exciting target for improving social function,” write Larry Young and Catherine Barrett, of Emory University, in Atlanta. “However investigations into its potential therapeutic application are still in the early stages.” Dr. Young has received two Autism Speaks research grants for studies into oxytocin and social behavior. Barrett is a graduate student in his lab.

As a naturally occurring hormone, oxytocin enhances social bonding. In early studies – including a clinical trial supported by Autism Speaks – a spritz of oxytocin into the nose temporarily increased social responsiveness in those with autism. However, results have been inconsistent in larger, follow-up studies. 

Of particular concern is the possibility that giving oxytocin to children on a regular basis can interfere with brain development in unwanted ways. When researchers gave mice pups oxytocin, Dr. Young and Barrett note, the treatment reduced their brain’s sensitivity to the hormone and the mice grew up to be less social than untreated mice.

It’s also far from clear that autism involves a deficiency in oxytocin. A recent study found that oxytocin levels in children with autism varied no more or less than did oxytocin levels in other children. However, the same study suggested that low oxytocin levels worsened social disability in those affected by autism.

In their Science “Perspective,” Young and Barrett conclude that oxytocin’s greatest potential may prove to be occasional use in combination with behavioral therapy that fosters social skills.

Finally they propose that the inconsistent results from large studies might be because oxytocin delivered by nasal spray doesn’t reach all areas of the brain. They hold out hope for greater effectiveness from future treatments that stimulate brain cells to release more oxytocin.

“Autism Speaks is committed to the long and often winding road from basic science to safe and effective treatments,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks head of medical research. “In this case, the challenges ahead include determining the right dose, the best age and method for administration and perhaps how best to pair treatment with behavioral intervention.” For more perspective from Dr. Wang, also see “Oxytocin for Treating Autism? Not So Fast… .”

To read more oxytocin research news, also see
Bonding Over Oxytocin
Study Provides New Clues to Oxytocin-Autism Connection
Study Suggests that Low Oxytocin Does Not Cause Autism, But Can Worsen Social Disabilities.”

Autism Speaks has funded twelve oxytocin studies at ten sites in the U.S. and abroad. (See map above.) Learn more about these studies here. Like all the research supported by Autism Speaks, these grants are made possible by the passion and generosity of our families, donors and volunteers.