an MRI image of the brainResearch from the Yale Child Study Center has found that oxytocin may have treatment applications for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In a small study, children were given doses of oxytocin and then participated in an emotion-identification task. The children did not perform better on the task while using oxytocin, but parts of the brain related to social behaviors were stimulated, which may suggest that oxytocin could have a part to play in treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is involved in forming emotional bonds and social connections, creating trust, and encouraging empathy. It is sometimes called the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone.” However, other studies have found that oxytocin can motivate competitive feelings or ethnocentric behavior. The long-term effects of oxytocin use are not yet understood.

For the study, 17 children aged eight to 16 with high-functioning autism (HFA) received a dose of oxytocin and participated in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The children were given either oxytocin or a placebo at various points during the study (all of the children eventually received oxytocin). After their dose, their brains were monitored during an fMRI while the children completed tasks. One task was to identify emotions based on images of people’s eyes. The other test involved identifying pictures of inanimate objects.

While the children did not actually perform better on the emotion-identification test under oxytocin’s influence, their brains exhibited increased activity in areas linked to social activities. Their brains manifested decreased levels of activity while making non-social judgments after taking oxytocin.

Another observation was that children who had a higher concentration of oxytocin in their saliva had greater activity in the amygdala. This finding might indicate that a saliva test could help identify people with ASD who would most benefit from oxytocin treatments.

The research team will be publishing a second study about the social effects of oxytocin and then moving on to a larger and longer trial of oxytocin—300 children over six months to a year. The researchers expect to find that oxytocin may facilitate behavior interventions or acute therapies, but that it will not be an every-day fix for general social skills.

This research is published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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