As the number of children being diagnosed with autism seems to be reaching epidemic proportions, there is a growing focus on finding both preventive and autism treatment options. One of those options is a natural substance called oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, bonding hormone, and trust hormone.
With three such positive adjectives used to describe this natural brain chemical, one would hope oxytocin will prove to be an effective tool in the fight against autism. The good news is that thus far, most of the studies have been encouraging.
What is oxytocin?
The pituitary gland in the brain is the source of oxytocin production in the body. Levels of the hormone rise under certain circumstances, such as giving birth, breastfeeding and other types of maternal bonding, sexual arousal, hugging, and kissing. In other words, oxytocin is associated with positive personal and social interactions. That’s one reason why it is being explored as an autism treatment for different behaviors and challenges associated with this neurodevelopment disorder.
Love hormone improves brain activity
One hallmark of autism is significant difficulty with social interactions and relationships, although the severity of this problem varies among individuals. Examples of social challenges include difficulty developing eye-to-eye contact, little interest in other people, and lack of empathy.
The authors of a new study conducted at Yale School of Medicine reported that a single dose of oxytocin administered to autistic children and adolescents via nasal spray improved their brain activity while they were processing social information. During the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, the participants were randomly given either oxytocin or a placebo nasal spray during a task that involved social judgments.
The responses of each participant was documented using functional magnetic resonance brain imaging. According to the study’s first author, Ilanit Gordon, adjunct assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, “oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism.” More specifically, the love hormone promoted the process that makes areas of the brain involved in social issues more active. This finding is important because of “the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders.”
Love hormone, mothers, and autism
Another recent study uncovered an interesting relationship between oxytocin levels and autism, but this time the love hormone levels in 66 mothers were studied-40 who had children with autism and 26 who did not. Levels of oxytocin were evaluated regarding each child’s autistic behavior scores. The study also looked at levels of testosterone and arg-vasopressin, which is similar in structure to oxytocin.
The authors found that mothers who had autistic children had significant lower plasma concentrations of the love hormone and arg-vasopression and higher levels of testosterone when compared with mothers of children without autism. They then concluded that “dysregulation” of oxytocin and/or the other two factors can be seen “in mothers of autistic children, which may impact children’s susceptibility to autism.”
Love hormone and social skills
The ability to focus on conversations and people in a crowded, noisy situation can be stressful for anyone, so you can imagine how difficult it would be for anyone who has autism. Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center believe oxytocin is a critical element in the ability to distinguish normal conversation from background noise and that their discovery may help people who have autism.
One of the study’s coauthors, Richard W. Tsien, DPhil, director of the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained that his team’s experiments “show how the activity of brain circuits can be sharpened, and hint at how this re-tuning of brain circuits might go awry in conditions like autism.” Since people with autism are easily distracted by events and activity in their environment and also lack empathy, the authors have suggested that oxytocin may be helpful as an autism treatment tool.
Yet another study looked at the ability of oxytocin to improve social skills, but this research was conducted in animals. At the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, a team evaluated the impact of oxytocin in mouse models of autism. They found that the love hormone improved social deficits and repetitive behaviors (another hallmark of autism).
Autism is estimated to affect 1 in every 88 children. The physical, educational, personal, social, emotional, and financial challenges and consequences associated with this condition are enormous, and this fact among others drive the urgent need for ways to prevent and treat this disorder. The love hormone oxytocin may be one option in the autism treatment tool chest.
Photo Credit: Markus Reinhardt