Autism and Oxytocin

Oxytocin treatment produces more improvement in social behavior among children with autism who have low levels of the hormone to begin with, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Oxytocin is a nine amino acid peptide produced in the brain and released by the pituitary gland. It is produced in the body naturally, by both males and females, and plays a role in reproduction and may even contribute to those feelings we call “love.”

Recent research has linked oxytocin with the ability to trust others. Evidence suggests that it may even play a major role in a person’s ability to take care of others and for avoiding conflict.

It’s been demonstrated in animals that oxytocin acting within the brain plays a major role in establishing maternal behavior, as scientists put oxytocin into the ventricles of the brains of virgin rats and non-pregnant sheep, and it rapidly induced maternal behavior.

A team of Japanese and American researchers did a recent study where they genetically engineered mice to not process oxytocin. The result was that the males became more aggressive and the females often forgot to take care of their babies. Additionally, the males were quicker to attack aggressors and they would fight for a longer period of time than the mice with normal oxytocin production.

Acute stress can inhibit oxytocin release in humans, and that may explain sudden anger if someone is experiencing a lot of stress.

One characteristic of autism is a lack of a sense of empathy towards other people. They can sometimes be aggressive or have trouble relating to others.

While it would be quite a stretch for these results to go from mice to humans, scientists believe that this research may help to develop a treatment for people with autism. It could prove that internal problems with oxytocin may help offer an explanation about the nature of autism. If a direct relationship is found, it may provide us a way to help those with autism.

The new study included 32 children with autism who were randomly assigned to receive an intranasal oxytocin spray or a placebo spray twice daily for four weeks. The children’s blood oxytocin levels were measured before and after the four-week period. The children’s behavior was assessed at the beginning and end of the trial using a standardized questionnaire completed by their parents. The hormone was found to be safe, with no adverse events reported.

As in many trials, the researchers saw some improvement even in children given the placebo, though the effect was less pronounced than it was in the oxytocin group. Children who had low oxytocin at baseline received more benefit from placebo than those who began with high oxytocin — and their bodies’ own production of the hormone rose modestly. This unexpected finding suggests a possible biological explanation for the placebo effect, which is common in studies of psychological and psychiatric treatments.

Among the children who got oxytocin, those with the lowest oxytocin levels at the beginning of the trial experienced the greatest improvements in social behavior. Oxytocin’s effects were specific: the hormone did not change the frequency of repetitive behaviors, nor did it affect children’s anxiety levels.

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