Oxytocin Found to Be Helpful in Social Situations for Children with ASD

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • When the hormone oxytocin was used as a nasal spray, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers found changes in brain activity and increased “social attunement.” This study was completed at Yale University and published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The study included 17 children and adolescents with ASD between the ages of 8 and 16.5 years old. The participants either received one dose of oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo. They were then shown pictures, some pictures were of eyes and were considered social pictures. Some were non-social pictures of vehicles. The researchers measured brain activity via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). According to Ilanit Gordon, lead researcher, “We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo. Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for social deficits seen in children with autism.” [1]

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    Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone  that is important to social bonding. We produce more oxytocin during social and bonding situations such as hugging, kissing, sex, birth, breast feeding. It has also been found to stimulate the reward centers in the brain, increasing “partner attractiveness and strengthening monogamy.” [2]

    Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty in social situations. Researchers and medical professionals continuously look for ways to help children with ASD create, strengthen and maintain social bonds. Currently, there is no medication to treat ASD although some medications are prescribed based on individual symptoms.

    While this study is encouraging, Paul Wang, the senior vice-president for medical research at Autism Speaks, believes it is too soon to know whether this is an effective treatment. He points out that this study was very small - involving only 17 children and adolescents and leaves questions unanswered, such as:

    Does oxytocin have lasting effects on social behavior?

    Is oxytocin safe to use beyond a single dose?

    Is there any benefit in real-life situations?

    Larger studies are currently being conducted on the effects of oxytocin on children with ASD. These studies are looking not only at how this hormone impacts social situations but the long term safety and effectiveness. Some previous studies on animals have indicated that long-term use might worsen social bonding or suppress the body’s natural production of the hormone. Some studies using people have shown use of oxytocin increases suspicion of strangers.

    Wang believes that more research and studies are needed before there are any definitive answers as to whether this hormone is effective and safe. He cautions against using over-the-counter sprays or having doctor’s prescribe it for the treatment of ASD until we have more information.


    [1] [2] “Oxytocin Activates ‘Social’ Brain Regions in Children with Autism,” 2013, Dec. 3, Marie Ellis, Medical News Today

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    “Oxytocin for Treating Autism? Not So Fast…,” 2013, Paul Wang, Autism Speaks

Published On: January 08, 2014