The hormone oxytocin has been generating excitement — and caution — among people who care about autism.
Scientists have been eager to see if oxytocin, which plays a role in emotional bonding, trust and many biological processes, can improve social behavior in people with autism, especially girls. It is not an approved treatment for autism. Nevertheless some parents of children with autism have asked doctors to prescribe it or have purchased lower-dose versions of the drug over the counter in an attempt to treat them..
Oxytocin helps with birth, bonding with the new baby and the production of milk
Oxytocin (oksɪ-toʊsɪn) is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide. It is normally produced by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. It plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction in both sexes, and during and after childbirth. Oxytocin is strongly associated with empathy. It is called the “hormone of love.”
Oxytocin is released into the bloodstream as a hormone in response to stretching of the cervix and uterus during labor. It facilitates childbirth. It is also released when nipples are stimulated from breastfeeding. All in all this hormone helps moms with birth, bonding with the baby, and milk production.
Oxytocin was discovered over a century ago by British physiologist Sir Henry Dale. He found that extracts of posterior pituitary glands from oxen, when administered to animals such as cats and dogs, encouraged the animals’ uterus to contract. (Read more about Oxytocin)
Oxytocin affects the brains of children with autism
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) followed a small group of 13 patients with high-functioning autism. Researchers found that the hormone, given as an inhalant, generated increased activity in parts of the brain involved in social connection. This suggests not only that oxytocin can stimulate social brain areas, but also that in children with autism these brain regions are not irrevocably damaged but are still plastic enough to be influenced.
However, Oxytocin is no magic bullet
However, Oxytocin is not a magic bullet for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For a detailed discussion of the benefits of administering Oxytocin as a intranasal spray (OT) read the entire NAS article. The researchers found that only modest improvements in social functioning were observed in adults with ASD when treated daily for 6 weeks with OT. Similarly, no changes in social behavior were found when OT was given once every morning for 5 days to children with ASD, even in a context of providing treatment for their behaviors. They predict that the most successful therapeutic results will happen when the compound is given in supportive contexts before treating the behaviors of ASD. In other words, while OT is not magic it may be helpful in some instances. So far that is the most that can be said about Oxytocin.