Oxytocin improves social interaction in autism

Treating autism continues to be a major challenge with few medications making any difference to its core symptoms, namely social impairment, communication delays, and repetitive behaviors.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is naturally produced in the body in the hypothalamus. It is a hormone that has a wide range of actions, including being responsible for the contractions in childbirth. It has also been referred to as the “trust hormone” or a “pro-social” chemical given its effects on the average person.

What are the actions of Oxytocin?

Research has shown that oxytocin given through a nasal spray, the route of choice to allow it to access the brain, can result in increased trust, generosity, emotional recognition, and social empathy in normal people. It has also been linked to a sense of calmness and wellbeing. Given all these benefits, oxytocin spray may be found on dozens of internet sites as a “love potion” to improve ones love life, although these claims are dubious at best.

Research into oxytocin in animals has shown that it is an important chemical in helping to form the bond between mother and new born offspring. It is also important in the formation of romantic bonds between male and female animal couples, especially in species that are monogamous or have long relationships.

How can it help people with autism?

There is growing recognition of the importance of improving the social impairment in autism, for example difficulties in sharing feelings, demonstrating eye contact, or understanding emotions in others. Increasingly research has shown that oxytocin may improve some of these difficulties in people with autism. It appears that the oxytocin system, including genes, may be abnormal in at least a select group of people with autism.

Making eye contact is a challenge for many people with autism. When we assess and interact in social situations, we glean a tremendous amount of information from people’s eyes and facial expressions. Research has shown that oxytocin can significantly increase the amount of time that people with autism spend looking at these areas. The recognition of facial emotion may also be difficult for many with autism, and again oxytocin administration in people with and without autism can improve their ability to recognize facial expressions and emotions. Oxytocin has also been shown to result in increased cooperation and social interaction in people with autism when playing games with other players.

Oxytocin remains an experimental, although promising, treatment for autism. While it is not a “cure” for autism, its use may help behavioral approaches and other therapies to have a longer lasting or more beneficial effect.

As with all medications we must be alert to potential side effects, most commonly nausea and vomiting.

A book written by one of my old professors, Dr. Larry Young may interest you, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction (I have no commercial interest).

Additionally, we are undertaking research into oxytocin at the Lurie Center for Autism at the Massachusetts General Hospital – to support the center please click here massgeneral.org

About the Author

Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D.

Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D., is a resident child psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School. He is an APA Leadership Fellow.

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