Science magazine is reporting on a new study that found that oxytocin, the so-called “trust hormone”, may be beneficial in dealing with the symptoms of autism. In two small studies conducted in Toronto, researchers administered oxytocin inhalers to children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Following the oxytocin dose, the children, who previously had difficulty interacting and engaging with others, were better able to look people in the eye and demonstrate understanding of social concepts.
In non-human primates oxytocin is released during grooming and mating rituals. Other human and animal studies have demonstrated its role in lactation, birthing, and mother-infant bonding, as well as states of sexual arousal, reduced fear, and increased trust. For example, in previous experiments scientists found that adult humans who get an oxytocin dose are more likely to give a stranger money, or generally behave more altruistically, than those in a control group who do not receive oxytocin.
Researchers have known for some time that oxytocin is found in lower levels in people with autism, but it’s unclear if the levels are low because of autism’s effects on brain chemistry, or because oxytocin release is related to physical touch and bonding, which people with autism tend to experience less than others. Either way, the findings from this pioneering pilot study definitely merit further exploration into the uses of oxytocin for ameliorating the symptoms of autism and related disorders. Most exciting to me, the researchers suggest that oxytocin dosing could potentially allow a person to train the social deficits of an autistic brain to behave more like a “normal” brain, using the brain’s plasticity to heal itself. Once trained, of course, the oxytocin would no longer be needed. This is all hope and speculation at this point- but an exciting first step nonetheless.