New York Times Reports that the “Love Hormone”―Oxytocin―May Help Treat Autism

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James F. Leckman, M.D. of Yale University, Expert in Autism
James F. Leckman, M.D.

Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone” since it is known to play a role in emotional bonding and trust, has been shown to stimulate brain activity and appears to reduce certain symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. The research was conducted at the Yale Child Study Center by two former NARSAD Grantees, Professor James F. Leckman, M.D. (1993 NARSAD Grant) and Assistant Professor Ruth Feldman, Ph.D. (2006 and 2008 NARSAD Grants). The results of their research were published December 2nd in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In this study, the first to investigate how oxytocin affects brain activity in children with ASD, 17 children between the ages of eight and 16, all with mild forms of the spectrum disorder, received a single inhaler spray of the hormone or placebo. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans and through the administration of social-emotional perception tests, the researchers measured brain activity.

The research team noticed that brain areas involved in social functions like empathy and reward (known to be less active in children with ASD) showed more activity after taking oxytocin than after placebo. It appears that the oxytocin temporarily normalized activity in areas of the brain known to have atypical activity in children with ASD. These findings are hopeful not only in showing that oxytocin can stimulate brain activity, but also in providing some evidence that these brain regions may not be irrevocably damaged in children with ASD.

Another former NARSAD Grantee (1998 and 2000), Linmarie Sikich, M.D., Associate Professor and Director of the Adolescent and School-age Psychiatric Intervention Research Program (ASPIRE) at the University of North Carolina, who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times, “What this shows is that the brains of people with autism aren’t incapable of responding in a more typical social way.” Dr. Sikich will be conducting a larger study of 300 children with ASD to evaluate behavioral effects of daily oxytocin for six or 12 months.

The Yale study also found that children whose saliva showed higher oxytocin concentrations had more activity in the amygdala, a brain region known to play a key role in the processing of emotions. That suggests that eventually a simple saliva test could help identify who might benefit most from oxytocin.

While the researchers from Yale say that taking oxytocin as a continuous treatment may not enhance general social skills, it is a tool that may be developed to help children benefit more from additional therapies or specific social experiences.

Read the article in the NY Times.

Read more about this research from the LA Times.

CBS News also covered these findings.

Read the abstract of the research paper.

Article comments

Wouldn't it also be interesting to see if damage is crystallized in more advanced age--or is it accommodated for in some synergistic way???

As controversial as this original idea now is, there is definitely a connection between a mother's early emotional relationship with her child and autism. Even if the mother is physically present, if she is emotionally distant combined with not breastfeeding and/or doesn't hold the child several hours per day, that child is at a significantly greater risk of having autism. Research will prove this more and more over time, although it's pretty logical. Also, the increased exposure to media, especially as a substitute for emotional bonding and physical play are additional risk factors. Please stop trying to blame genes and neurotransmitters; those are secondary factors and a distraction to dealing with the primary societal issue. Use funding to help pregnant women and mothers understand and learn about the importance of physical and emotional bonding with their children, as well as help them to deal with their own childhood to overcome potential barriers to emotional and physical distancing.

It is people like Nikki that make it so difficult for the different types of mental illness to be accepted as "legitimate" health diagnoses in society. This kind of research is a lifeline for those of us who struggle with afflicted family members, particularly with children. As parents we worry about the future, and reading about these types of discoveries makes me hopeful that not only my teenage children will be able to function at a more productive and "normal" level, but also that any future generations may not have to struggle as our family has had to. Through the years I have talked to many people who attempt to give advice, criticism, and blame in well-meaning ways. This only makes it more difficult to get these children help and serves to undermine the confidence of parents who are trying to help their children. Please support this research and ignore holier-than-thou people like Nikki!

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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