Anecdotal evidence has long touted the benefits of Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”, for children with autism spectrum disorder. Now a new study seems to confirm that a nasal spray containing the hormone helps improve social skills in autistic children.
The study comes from the Brain and Mind Center at the University of Sydney, Australia, and was published in the October 27th issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry. The researchers studied 31 autistic children who ranged in age from three to eight. For five weeks, the children received two daily nasal sprays which contained oxytocin.
The children who received the oxytocin spray seemed to fare better than their peers who did not. They experienced significant improvements in their behavioral problems, emotional problems, and social responsiveness, as reported by the parents. The researchers also used social responsiveness assessments to measure the improvement. The children who received oxytocin nasal spray did have some side effects, including thirst, urination, and constipation, but no major side effects were reported.
There have been previous studies into the link between oxytocin hormone and autism. Those studies involved injecting the hormone into the patients, which could be difficult if used long-term. The authors of this study stress that by offering the hormone through a nasal spray, the administration is easy for parents at home, making it more accessible than injections.
The authors believe their study is the first to show that social skills in autistic children can be improved through drug treatment. However, as beneficial as the treatment seemed to be, there are some limitations. The study was small, so larger studies will be needed to confirm the link between oxytocin supplementation and an improvement in autistic symptoms. Larger studies into the link are planned in the United States. In addition, the treatment only improved certain symptoms. Other therapies are still needed to treat other aspects of the condition, although oxytocin could be used in combination with these.
The researchers also do not know the long-term effects of using oxytocin. As soon as the daily treatments were stopped, the children reverted back to their previous behavior. It is unclear whether using oxytocin for long periods of time would continue to provide the same benefits.
Parents of autistic children currently struggle to find appropriate treatments. While behavioral therapies can help, these treatments are expensive and time-consuming, with intervention needed for about forty hours every week. The therapy also does not work for all children. There are no drugs to treat autism currently, although some aspects of the disorder are managed with drugs such as antidepressants. Many see oxytocin as the best hope for a drug-based autism therapy.
About one in sixty-eight American children receive an autism diagnosis and it is estimated to affect over 21 million people around the world. The neurodevelopmental disorder has symptoms like impaired communication, lack of social interaction, and repetitive behavior. The disorder has both genetic and environmental causes and seems to involve alteration in how the brain processes information. More boys are affected by autism than girls, and although the numbers of autism diagnoses have been rising since the 1980s, it is unclear whether this is because of more children having the disorder or just increased awareness and diagnosis.
Previous oxytocin research had already revealed that the hormone can improve memory, eye gaze, and emotion recognition. The hormone occurs naturally in the human body and is associated with the bond between parents and children and with romantic connections between couples.
The authors of this study found that the oxytocin triggered changes in parts of the brain that are responsible for social behavior. Their next step is to examine how oxytocin modifies brain wiring to make social changes.