Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Researchers Discover Oxytocin Increases Brain Function in Autism

James Frederick Leckman, MD, Neison Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and Professor of Pediatrics and of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
James F. Leckman, M.D.

NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee, James F. Leckman, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center, is one of the researchers talking part in an ongoing, large-scale study of oxytocin by Yale researchers that was presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research. The results of the study demonstrate that oxytocin increases brain function in the regions of the brain that process social information in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes. Oxytocin increases in response to stress and is associated with good social skills such as empathy and enjoying the company of others. Recent studies have demonstrated that administration of oxytocin can specifically improve emotion recognition in social context.

NARSAD Independent Investigator Grantee Ruth Feldman, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychology at the Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, also took part in this study. The team's results were based on a double-blind, placebo-controlled study with children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 with ASD. The children were given a single dose of oxytocin in a nasal spray and the researchers used functional magnetic resonance brain imaging to observe its effect.The researchers found that oxytocin may be the key to new treatments for the symptoms of autism related to difficulty in social interaction and communication. Other members of the Yale Child Study Center research team were postdoctoral fellow Ilanit Gordon and Kevin Pelphrey, associate professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology. Dr. Gordon said that these findings “provide the first, critical steps toward devising more effective treatments for the core social deficits in autism, which may involve a combination of clinical interventions with an administration of oxytocin. Such a treatment approach will fundamentally improve our understanding of autism and its treatment."

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