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The promise and perils of oxytocin for autism

Nature News updates us on the latest oxytocin research – and why the hormone is losing its image as a simple cuddle chemical
June 25, 2015

“Oxytocin has been of keen interest to neuroscientists since the 1970s, when studies started to show that it could drive maternal behavior and social attachment,” writes science journalist Helen Shen in this week’s Nature. “That view has led some clinicians to try oxytocin as a treatment for psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. But the early trials have had mixed results, and scientists are now seeking a deeper understanding of oxytocin and how it works in the brain.”

In particular, Shen writes, “scientists are concerned by reports from the physicians and parents of children with autism spectrum disorder who say that they are already using oxytocin off-label — before it has been thoroughly tested. Indeed, some studies have found the prolonged use can worsen rather than improve autism symptoms.

On the promising side, Shen quotes researchers as welcoming a new era of collaborative research on oxytocin.

If scientists can work across disciplines to decipher how oxytocin helps the brain process social information, this might lead to the design of behavioral therapies that could be given alongside the hormone to maximize its potential.

Read Shen’s excellent – and open access – news feature here.