Love hormone helps autistic children bond with others, study shows

Researchers find that nasal sprays laced with oxytocin help youngsters interact better, but the effects do not last long

A nasal spray laced with the "love hormone" oxytocin could help children with autism learn to handle social situations better, US researchers claim. Scans of children with autistic spectrum disorder showed that a single dose of the chemical improved brain responses to facial expressions, a shift that could make social interactions feel more natural and rewarding for them.

The scientists behind the research said a course of oxytocin might boost the success of behavioural therapies that are already used to help people with autism learn to cope with social situations.

"Over time, what you would expect to see is more appropriate social responding, being more interested in interacting with other people, more eye contact and more conversational ability," said Kevin Pelphrey, director of the child neuroscience lab at Yale University.

Autism is a developmental disorder seen in more than one in 100 people. The condition affects individuals in different ways, but is characterised by difficulties in social interaction and communication. So far, there is no established treatment for the social problems caused by autism.

Researchers at Yale have studied the brain chemical oxytocin as a potential treatment for the social impairments caused by autism because it plays a crucial role in bonding and trust. Results have been mixed, though: one recent study found no significant benefit for youths given the chemical over several days. But Pelphrey said oxytocin might help the brain learn from social interactions; it would work best when used with therapies that encourage people with autism to engage more socially, he said. "Our study shows that oxytocin affects the brain and opens up the possibility that, when combined with behavioural treatments, it works like a social enhancer," he said.

The scientists used a technique called functional MRI to scan the brains of 17 youths aged eight to 16 with autism while they looked at images of cars or the eyes of people expressing various emotions. The scans were given 45 minutes after the participants inhaled a placebo or oxytocin through a nasal spray.

The scans showed that reward circuitry in the children's brains behaved more normally after a snort of oxytocin, being more active when the person was looking at faces and less active when viewing the inanimate cars. The study appears in the latest issue of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

"If this is replicated, it suggests that oxytocin might treat something for which we don't have a treatment in autism, and that's the core social motivation," Pelphrey told the Guardian.

He warned that it was too early to use oxytocin as a treatment for the social difficulties caused by autism and cautioned against buying oxytocin from suppliers online. "We don't want them running out on the basis of this study or any other and trying oxytocin at home. There is no telling what they are buying. We are nowhere near thinking this is a ready treatment. It needs more follow up," he said.

"This is an important new study in identifying changes in brain activity in key regions of the brain involved in social cognition in autism following oxytocin administration," said Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University.

A surprising finding however is that oxytocin nasal spray did not change performance on the social cognitive task. Nor is it clear yet if oxytocin only has benefits for people with autism, and no unwanted side effects. Finally, oxytocin effects only last about 45 minutes, so there may be practical considerations as to whether this could be used as a treatment.

"From a scientific perspective, this study has a lot of evidence from animal and human work to justify serious attention, but more research is needed. Doctors should be cautious about the clinical potential of this hormone until we know much more about its benefits and risks, in much larger studies."

Uta Frith, who studies autism at University College London, said: "According to this study, oxytocin may have an effect of making faces more interesting as assessed by greater activity in brain structures concerned with reward evaluation. Disappointingly, this effect is seen only in brain activity and not in behaviour. Demonstrating an effect on behaviour will be critical if nasal spray treatment is to be of any value."


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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