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Promising Results with Oxytocin

May 16, 2012

A whiff of oxytocin increased activity in the social centers of the brain in a small study of children with autism. The findings were presented today at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), in Toronto, Ontario.

Oxytocin is a brain chemical involved in social behaviors. In animal studies, oxytocin improves social recognition and mother-infant bonding. Some small studies have found that giving oxytocin to “typical” adults increases the time they spend looking at another person’s eyes – an indicator of social engagement. It also appears to improve a person’s ability to read the emotions behind facial expressions. Still other studies have associated autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with changes in genes that control how oxytocin affects brain cells.

In the new study, which is ongoing, researchers from Yale University are enrolling 40 children and adolescents with ASD. The children range between the ages of 7 and 18. Each receive a nasal spray of either oxytocin or an inactive “dummy” spray on two separate visits. The children then undergo brain imaging scans. During the scan, they watch images of facial expressions or simulated human movements.

Early results suggest that the oxytocin treatment enhances activity in brain regions that are associated with perceiving social signals such as eye gaze and pointing. It also appears to improve the ability to infer emotions from facial expressions.

“These findings add to a growing body of evidence that points to oxytocin and oxytocin-based therapeutics as having great potential for addressing social behavior in autism,” says Autism Speaks Vice President for Translational Research Rob Ring, Ph.D. “Although enormously interesting, these findings are not sufficient to warrant using oxytocin to treat autism today. Rather they give reason to hope that the knowledge being generated by such studies can be translated into safe and effective medicines.”

Autism Speaks is currently funding a number of studies on oxytocin. At the University of North Carolina, funded researchers are looking at genetic mutations that may affect how brain cells respond to oxytocin. They are also determining whether oxytocin levels are associated with autism severity. Another funded study is investigating the effects of new methods for stimulating oxytocin brain release in animal models. These and hundreds of other studies are being made possible by the support of our families, donors and volunteers.

For more news and commentary, please see our 2012 IMFAR page