Many persons with autism have sensory difficulties. These include challenges with focusing attention on important information while screening out background activity.
New research suggests that oxytocin plays an important role in this “signal-to-noise” brain filtering. This follows previous research linking changes in genes related to oxytocin to the social challenges seen in many individuals with autism. Popularly dubbed the “love hormone,” oxytocin promotes social bonding.
The study appears online this week in the scientific journal Nature.
“This is a sophisticated study that reveals previously unknown and specific actions of oxytocin in the brain,” says Daniel Smith, Autism Speaks senior director of discovery neuroscience. "If oxytocin proves to be a safe and effective therapy, the results will help us understand why and how.”
Oxytocin nasal spray is currently being tested as a treatment to improve sociability and communication in children and teens with autism.
Boosting Signal, Dampening ‘Noise’
The new findings associate oxytocin with a specific type of brain cell called fast-spiking interneurons. The researchers found that oxytocin strengthens some actions of these cells while reducing the background activity in neighboring cells. The authors propose that this may improve information and sensory processing.
“Oxytocin has a remarkable effect on the passage of information through the brain,” says study co-author Richard Tsien. Dr. Tsien directs the Neuroscience Institute of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “It quiets background activity and increases the accuracy of stimulated impulse firing,” he says. “Our experiments hint at how this re-tuning of brain circuits might go awry in conditions like autism.” The findings are preliminary and require further research to confirm and deepen, he cautions.
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