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Oxytocin Hormone May Treat Autism

Study Shows Oxytocin May Improve Social Skills for Some People With Autism

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 15, 2010 -- Oxytocin, the so-called hormone of love, may help promote social skills and social behavior in people with high-functioning autism.

A new study shows people with high-functioning autism disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, who were treated with oxytocin responded more strongly to others and displayed more appropriate social behaviors.

Despite high intellectual abilities, people with high-functioning autism lack the social skills to engage appropriately with others in social situations.

Oxytocin is nicknamed the hormone of love because it is known to promote mother-infant bonds. It is also thought to be involved in the regulation of emotions and other social behaviors. Other research has found that children with autism have lower levels of oxytocin than children without autism.

In this study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined the effect of inhaled oxytocin on social behavior in 13 young adults with high-functioning autism in two separate experiments. A comparable group of 13 people without autism was also included in the study.

In the first experiment, researchers observed the participants' social behavior in a computer ball-tossing game in which the players could choose between passing the ball to a good, bad, or neutral character.

Typically, people with autism would exhibit little preference between the three choices, but in the experiment those treated with oxytocin engaged more with the good character and sent more balls to the good character than the bad one. People with autism who were given a placebo showed no difference in the way they responded to the three characters. The comparison group without autism sent more balls to the good character.

In the second experiment, researchers measured the participants' attentiveness and responses to pictures of human faces. Those treated with oxytocin were more attentive to visual cues in the pictures and looked longer at the socially informative region of the face, namely the eyes.

"Thus, under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism," write researcher Elissar Andari of the Centre Nátional de la Recherche Scientifique in Bron, France, and colleagues.

They say the results suggest further long-term studies are needed to examine the effects of oxytocin on social skills and behaviors in people with high-functioning autism.

SOURCES: Andari, E. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb. 15, 2010; advance online edition. News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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