Oxytocin: a cure for autism?
Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have shown that oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain and throughout the body, increases brain function in the areas that oversee social development in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
What the news means to you
Findings point to "great potential for addressing social deficits in autism."
Fred R. Volkmar, MD
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASD handle information in their brain differently than other people. The major symptom of ASD is the inability to form social relationships with people and to read their faces for cues on how to communicate or empathize with them.
In the first of its kind study, Yale researchers gave seven children and adolescents with ASD either a nasal spray containing oxytocin or an inactive placebo. The participants were given a series of tests to measure their responses to social cues and situations while having their brain activity measured using functional MRI.
The research team found that oxytocin increased activations in brain regions known to process social information, such as seeing, hearing and understanding other people.
Though the study was small, these findings add to a growing body of evidence that points to oxytocin and oxytocin-based therapeutics as having great potential for addressing social deficits in autism. What is exciting about this study is the ability to target this core social difficulty and look for changes in the brain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now estimates that 1 in 88 U.S. children are on the autism spectrum. For boys the number is even higher with 1 in 54 affected. As the numbers climb, autism remains a frustrating mystery for families, clinicians and researchers.
Yale Child Study Center has been in the vanguard of helping define and treat the disorder as well as offering clues to the genetic mechanisms that give rise to autism.
Fred R. Volkmar, MD, is chief of child psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital and chair of Yale Child Study Center. Dr. Volkmar is the Irving B. Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and Professor of Pediatrics, of Psychiatry and of Psychology at Yale School of Medicine.