Oxytocin, known as the “mother-infant bond hormone,” has shown in studies to be effective in treating the social deficits associated with autism. Oxytocin is a hormone secreted at birth and after, and it helps with the mother-child bond. It also affects other non-mother/child behaviors, such as feeling more open and trusting towards other people.
The study shows that oxytocin targets areas of the “social brain,” including the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal parietal junction, the fusiform gyrus, and the superior temporal sulcus. Theses areas of the brain are responsible for taking in and processing social information, including sights, sounds, and cues from people.
The study was a double-blind placebo-controlled study, meaning neither the subjects nor the researchers knew who was getting the treatment and who was getting the placebo (an inactive substance). A group of children age 7 to 18 were given a single dose of a nasal spray; one half of the group received a spray with oxytocin, the other half had no active ingredient.
The results of the study show that the children who received oxytocin had more activation in the social areas of their brains. While the treatment will require more rigorous study, it does show promise for future autism treatment.
Previous studies have investigated oxytocin, and the results show people with autism generally have less of the hormone than typically-developing individuals. Decreased social skills are hallmark symptoms of autism, which is one reason why the oxytocin treatment has potential benefits.
In the previous study, children with Asperger’s were given oxytocin or a placebo and then asked to play a virtual baseball game in which they had to interact with the virtual players. Those who had the oxytocin treatment chose the more “cooperative” virtual players with which to interact, while those who had the placebo seemed to choose at random.
In another test, those who had oxytocin tended to look more in the eyes of pictures of faces than those who had placebo, who tended to look away or only at the mouths of the faces.