Can Oxytocin Impact Sociability In Kids With Autism?

by Sumdima Rai
Autism spectrum disorder is a complex grouping of brain developmental disorders that are characterized by significant social, communicative, and behavioral challenges. Behavioral therapies can improve these impairments but they are typically time-consuming, costly, and often result in mixed outcomes.

New research suggests that there are alternative treatments that use the naturally occurring hormone oxytocin. According to research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a five-week treatment with oxytocin nasal spray improved social, emotional, and behavioral issues among young kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Historically, oxytocin has created interest due to its role in human bonding. In 2013, a small study showed that oxytocin nasal spray changed brain activity patterns in children with autism in a clinical trial with just 17 kids suffering from the illness.

Another clinical trial supported by Autism Speaks, found a nasal spray containing a synthetic version of oxytocin temporarily increased social responsiveness in the 25 autistic children involved in the trial. However, the results have been inconsistent in the follow-up larger studies funded by Autism Speaks as reported in the Science magazine. Study authors Larry Young and Catherine Barett of Emory University in Atlanta concluded: “Oxytocin remains an exciting target for improving social function. However investigations into its potential therapeutic application are still in its early stages.”

In the new study conducted at the University of Sydney, 31 children aged three to eight years of age received a twice daily dose of oxytocin in the form of nasal spray for five weeks. Meanwhile, researchers observed the children’s behavior in behavioral therapy sessions. “We used some of the most widely used assessments of social responsiveness for children with autism,” says co-author Adam Guastella, a child psychologist in the University’s Brain and Mind Centre. “We found that following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home. Our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.” In terms of side effects, the nasal spray was well received, with some increased thirst, constipation, and urination. However, two children had to discontinue due to worsening behavioral challenges.

“The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting,” says study co-author Ian Hickie, a psychiatrist at the Brain and Mind Centre. The next step according to the researchers is to understand how oxytocin changes brain circuitry to improve social function and apply it for the treatment of autistic children. Their goal is to develop oxytocin-based medicines to treat autism—not in isolation—but in the context of multidisciplinary care.

The Verdict

Paul Wang, developmental pediatrician and Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research, comments, “While it’s premature to give children oxytocin based on this small and limited trial, I think it shows the importance of studying such treatments in younger children. This is why early diagnosis is so important—so that treatment and treatment research can begin at the ages when it’s most likely to make a difference.”
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