Oxytocin helps social dysfunction in kids with ASD

December 16, 2013

A single intranasal spray of the naturally occurring hormone oxytocin improves function in areas of the brain associated with social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study.

 

A single intranasal spray of the naturally occurring hormone oxytocin improves function in areas of the brain associated with social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study.

In this first study to look at the association in children aged younger than 12 years, researchers from Yale University constructed a randomized, double-blind, crossover model using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the impact of a single intranasal administration of oxytocin on brain activity in 17 children and adolescents aged between 8 and 16.5 years with ASD.

The children randomly received either a single intranasal spray of oxytocin or a placebo during a task involving social judgment.

The investigators found that parts of the brain associated with reward and emotion recognition demonstrated a heightened response on MRI during social tasks when children received oxytocin compared with when they received the placebo. “Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism,” they said.

Upon viewing the functional MRI scans, the investigators found that oxytocin increased activity during social judgments and decreased activity during nonsocial judgments. The centers of the brain needed for appropriate social behavior and social cognition “lit up” more for social stimuli, such as faces, and less for nonsocial stimuli, such as cars.

Experts estimate that 1 in every 88 children aged 8 years has an ASD, with boys being 4 times as likely to have an ASD than girls. Social dysfunction is the hallmark of autism and is one of the most difficult aspects to treat. 

 

 

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