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More evidence that short-term oxytocin use can help kids with autism

New study pairs oxytocin nasal spray with behavioral therapy, but other research raises red flags about long-term use
October 28, 2015

A five-week treatment with oxytocin nasal spray improved social, emotional and behavioral issues among young children with autism, according to new research published this week in Molecular Psychiatry.

A naturally occurring hormone, oxytocin plays a role in social bonding. In early studies – including a clinical trial supported by Autism Speaks – a nasal spray containing a synthetic version of oxytocin temporarily increased social responsiveness in children with autism. However, results have been inconsistent in larger, follow-up studies. 

Moreover, studies in laboratory animals have suggested that long-term use might actually decrease the brain’s natural production of this so-called “social hormone.” And still other research has shown that oxytocin levels are no lower in people with autism, on average, than they are in other people.

The new study, conducted at the University of Sydney, Australia, enrolled 39 children, ages 3 to 8 years of age. Thirty-one of the children completed the study. Each received synthetic oxytocin or a placebo (saline solution) in a nasal spray twice daily for five weeks. The researchers then switched the two groups so that those who had received oxytocin received the placebo, and vice versa. Neither the researchers nor the families knew when each child was getting the active treatment until the study’s end.

Meanwhile, the researchers observed the children’s behavior as they participated in behavioral therapy sessions at the university’s autism clinic. They also had parents fill out daily questionnaires on their children’s behavior.

"We used some of the most widely used assessments of social responsiveness for children with autism," says co-author Adam Guastella, a child psychologist in the university’s Brain and Mind Centre. "We found that following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home. Our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre."

"The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting," adds study co-author Ian Hickie, a psychiatrist at the Sydney Brain and Mind Centre.

Overall, the nasal spray was well tolerated and the most common adverse events were increased thirst, urination and constipation. However, two children receiving oxytocin had to discontinue because of worsening behavioral challenges.

The next step, the researchers say, is to understand how oxytocin changes brain circuitry to improve social behavior and to see how oxytocin might be used to improve children’s response to behavioral therapy and social-skills classes. The goal is to develop the potential of oxytocin-based medicines – not in isolation – but in the context of multi-disciplinary care, they say.

“While it’s premature to give children oxytocin based on this small and limited trial, I think it shows the importance of studying such treatments in younger children,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “This is why early diagnosis is so important – so that treatment and treatment research can begin at the ages when it’s likely to make the most difference.”

Read the full, open-access research paper here.

For more research news and perspective on oxytocin for autism, also see:

Can oxytocin treat autism?

Study: Low oxytocin doesn’t cause autism, but can worsen social disability

Bonding over oxytocin

Study provides new clues to oxytocin-autism connection

Oxytocin for Treating Autism? Not So Fast…

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.


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