Can oxytocin help social skills in individuals with autism?
Two studies out this month and next suggest that oxytocin inhalation may be of benefit. Here are the abstracts:
Andari E, Duhamel JR, Zalla T, Herbrecht E, Leboyer M, Sirigu A: Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Mar 2;107(9):4389-94.
Social adaptation requires specific cognitive and emotional competences. Individuals with high-functioning autism or with Asperger syndrome cannot understand or engage in social situations despite preserved intellectual abilities. Recently, it has been suggested that oxytocin, a hormone known to promote mother-infant bonds, may be implicated in the social deficit of autism. We investigated the behavioral effects of oxytocin in 13 subjects with autism. In a simulated ball game where participants interacted with fictitious partners, we found that after oxytocin inhalation, patients exhibited stronger interactions with the most socially cooperative partner and reported enhanced feelings of trust and preference. Also, during free viewing of pictures of faces, oxytocin selectively increased patients’ gazing time on 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.
Guastella AJ, Einfeld SL, Gray KM, Rinehart NJ, Tonge BJ, Lambert TJ, Hickie IB: Intranasal oxytocin improves emotion recognition for youth with autism spectrum disorders. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Apr 1;67(7):692-4.
BACKGROUND: A diagnostic hallmark of autism spectrum disorders is a qualitative impairment in social communication and interaction. Deficits in the ability to recognize the emotions of others are believed to contribute to this. There is currently no effective treatment for these problems. METHODS: In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover design, we administered oxytocin nasal spray (18 or 24 IU) or a placebo to 16 male youth aged 12 to 19 who were diagnosed with Autistic or Asperger’s Disorder. Participants then completed the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task, a widely used and reliable test of emotion recognition. RESULTS: In comparison with placebo, oxytocin administration improved performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task. This effect was also shown when analysis was restricted to the younger participants aged 12 to 15 who received the lower dose. CONCLUSIONS: This study provides the first evidence that oxytocin nasal spray improves emotion recognition in young people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Findings suggest the potential of earlier intervention and further evaluation of oxytocin nasal spray as a treatment to improve social communication and interaction in young people with autism spectrum disorders. Copyright 2010 Society of Biological Psychiatry.
This is not the first time that oxytocin has been suggested as a possible treatment for autism-related social skills deficits. The first suggestion was in 1992, and there have been almost 100 articles and reports since then discussing the possibility. While the results are encouraging, I do not mention the studies here as a suggestion that parents run out and start this treatment for their children. But if you’d like to know more or perhaps participate in clinical trials, see the federal government’s site for studies that are recruiting participants.