Oxytocin Observed to Ameliorate Autism

Jiahe Gu | jiahe.gu@yale.edu April 11, 2014
Child therapy can often be effective in teaching autistic children proper social interaction, but drug therapy can directly address the physiological bases behind the disease. Image courtesy of MyChildWithoutLimits.org.

Child therapy can often be effective in teaching autistic children proper social interaction, but drug therapy can directly address the physiological bases behind the disease. Image courtesy of MyChildWithoutLimits.org.

Autism spectral disorder (ASD) is an increasingly common disorder that causes reduced social interaction and other abnormalities, especially in children. While psychological counseling can sometimes be effective, a proven pharmacological treatment for ASD does not yet exist. A study recently published by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aims to change this.

Led by Ilanit Gordon, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, the group conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled test in which oxytocin was administered as a nasal spray to 17 children and adolescents afflicted with ASD.

Oxytocin, a hormone traditionally known to induce intimacy as well as a variety of physical changes, has previously been shown to enhance processing of social stimuli in both healthy adults and those affected by ASD.

Gordon and her colleagues demonstrated that younger patients with ASD responded in a similar manner. When presented with pictures of eyes and asked to deduce the emotional state expressed, subjects given intranasal oxytocin exhibited significantly greater activity in the parts of the brain associated with social processing than subjects given a placebo spray.

These results suggest that oxytocin may hold promise as a treatment for the social impairment caused by ASD. Because ASD is as much a developmental disease as it is a neurological one, administration of such a treatment from infancy could lead to a compounding effect as improvements are magnified with each successive stage of social development. Oxytocin therapy could therefore lead to considerably improved social ability by adulthood.

Autism awareness is growing as more is understood about the disease. Shown: Yale’s Harkness Tower lit up in blue for World Autism Awareness Day 2013. Photographed by Jiahe Gu.

Autism awareness is growing as more is understood about the disease. Shown: Yale’s Harkness Tower lit up in blue for World Autism Awareness Day 2013. Photographed by Jiahe Gu.