Hormone May Improve Social Skills in Kids with Autism

Children with autism had improved brain function following oxytocin nasal spray

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Kids with autism can find it hard to understand what other people are feeling. And their communication challenges can make it hard for these children to interact with others.

A very small study has shown that a natural hormone may help resolve these challenges.

The researchers found that a single nasal spray of the hormone oxytocin activated parts of the brain involved with social interaction in children with autism.

The authors of this study suggested this research could lead to therapies that would help improve the social skills of these youngsters.

"Visit your pediatrician if your child has trouble making eye contact with you."

This small study was led by Ilanit Gordon, PhD, a Yale Child Study Center postdoctoral fellow. The team of researchers included Kevin Pelphrey, PhD, the Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and director of the Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience at Yale.

The goal of this study was to see what impact intranasal (delivered into the nose) oxytocin may have on the social skills of children and adolescents with autism.

This double-blind (neither researchers nor participants knew what they were receiving) study involved 17 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 16 who had autism spectrum disorders, which are characterized by difficulties in social interactions and communications, along with repetitive behaviors and limited interests.

Oxytocin is a hormone that’s been called the “trust hormone.” It’s a brain chemical that’s involved in social recognition, among other things.

Dr. Gordon and team wrote in the study's introduction that previous behavioral studies have shown that oxytocin delivered through a nasal spray resulted in adults and children with autism being:

  • more willing to interact socially
  • better able to understand the feelings and emotions behind (affective) speech
  • able to understand the mental states of others
  • more socially aware
  • less engaged in repetitive behaviors

The participants in this trial were randomly assigned to receive either an oxytocin or placebo (inactive) nasal spray on two consecutive visits.

The youngsters were asked to label the mental state of an individual based on pictures of the eyes (social entities) or to label the category of an automobile presented as pictures of vehicles (non-social objects).

Functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the brain were taken 45 minutes after the spray was given as the youngsters were completing the test. These scans revealed how and which parts of the brain responded to the tasks.

"We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo," Dr. Gordon said in a statement. "Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism."

“We speculate that these results may imply that intranasal oxytocin makes social stimuli more rewarding and socially salient to children with autism spectrum disorders,” the authors concluded.

Glen Elliott, MD, PhD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said these findings are exciting but still preliminary.

"Results to date certainly are interesting and are producing understandable excitement among the general public and researchers alike. However, it still is too early to know where these findings will lead and how useful oxytocin will prove to be clinically either for adults, where it was first studied, or for young children now under investigation,” Dr. Elliott told dailyRx News.

This study was published December 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Funding support came from a Harris Family Professorship, Lee Foundation Postdoctoral Award and Binational Science Foundation.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
December 4, 2013
Last Updated:
December 7, 2013