New evidence suggests that a nasal spray of a naturally-occurring hormone may help improve socialization among children with autism.
In the first study of its kind, researchers say that a single dose of the hormone oxytocin enhanced activity in areas of the brain associated with social tasks and could help make interactions with others more rewarding for kids with autism.
The findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences come from a study of 17 children ages 8 to 16 with the developmental disorder who were randomly given a nasal spray containing the hormone or a placebo. The kids were then asked to complete a social task — identifying a person’s mental state by looking at pictures of their eyes — and a non-social task — categorizing pictures of cars.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to assess the children’s brain responses during the activities.
“We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo,” said study co-author Ilanit Gordon of the Yale Child Study Center. “Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism.”
Meanwhile, the study found that taking oxytocin may help those with autism distinguish between social and non-social stimuli, with kids who received the hormone showing a decrease in activity in certain areas of the brain when they saw objects as opposed to people.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled study is the first to assess the impact of oxytocin on brain function in children with autism, researchers say. Preliminary findings were presented last year at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Toronto.
Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone.” It naturally occurs during childbirth, helping mothers bond with their babies, and in other circumstances
While the findings are promising, researchers said that further study is needed and much remains unknown about oxytocin including whether or not it is safe to use for extended periods.
The best application for oxytocin may not be as a long-term treatment for children with autism, the researchers said, but rather as a tool to use during behavioral and other therapies to maximize effectiveness of the treatments.