For the first time, researchers have found that oxytocin–the hormone at work when breastfeeding mothers bond with their babies and when couples cuddle–can help autistic patients with social interactions. The small but pioneering study showed that when autistic adults inhaled the “love hormone” oxytocin though a nasal spray, they paid more attention to expressions when looking at pictures of faces and were more likely to understand social cues in a game simulation [Reuters].
The findings will be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although more research is needed to confirm and explore the findings, the results are the latest in a growing body of evidence indicating that the hormone could lead to ways to help people with the often devastating brain disorder function better [Washington Post].
People with autism or with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty engaging in social situations [Scientific American]. They normally have trouble making eye contact and are awkward around other people. They also suffer from low levels of oxytocin–a hormone that is found naturally in humans and animals and helps humans understand emotions and social cues better.
In this study, Angela Sirigu of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon, observed 13 people with high-functioning autism, some of whom were made to inhale oxytocin as part of the experiments. The researchers watched the patients’ responses during a virtual ball tossing game to measure behavioral changes [Reuters]. In the task, Sirigu found that the patients who received the oxytocin nasal spray chose to interact primarily with the most cooperative ball-throwing computer character, while patients who received a placebo spray showed no preference for the cooperative character. In another experiment, the researchers asked the patients to answer questions about pictures of human faces, and recorded the focus of each participant’s gaze. The patients who had inhaled oxytocin showed that they were far more willing, though not quite as willing as controls, to explore faces, focusing longer on eyes [The Seattle Times].
The researchers are hopeful that because oxytocin proved safe and effective in this study, it could be used to help autistic people function in society. But because the “cuddle hormone” doesn’t last long in the body, some experts said the findings were more likely to encourage drug companies to develop alternative substances that had the same benefits [Washington Post].
In the past, other studies have shown that oxytocin can reduce typical autistic behaviors, causing autistic subjects to engage in fewer repetitive actions and to have less trouble identifying emotions in voices. Another study being published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that 16 autistic males in Australia ages 12 to 19 who received the hormone through a nasal spray were better able to recognize other people’s facial expressions [Washington Post].
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