Study Shows Oxytocin May Help Individuals with Autism Read Social Cues

A Japanese study published in the online journal Molecular Psychiatry found that small doses of oxytocin helped individuals with autism read social cues from characters in a movie. A brain scan also showed increased activity in the ventro medial prefrontal cortex region after the drug was administered.

Oxytocin is the “love” hormone that is secreted during pregnancy and breast-feeding. It also plays a role in forming bonds between lovers and other close relationships.

The subjects in the Japanese study were verbal, and would be considered “high-functioning,” but study co-author Hidenori Yamasue believes oxytocin could also be helpful to non-verbal individuals on the autism spectrum, since the subjects showed improvements in reading nonverbal social cues.

The study administered a small dose of oxytocin to 40 men with autism via nasal spray. Brain scans were performed 90 minutes later, to determine the hormone’s effects on brain function. Next, subjects were asked to watch a short film and determine whether a particular character was good or evil. All subjects showed increased ability to read the character’s intentions, using both verbal and non-verbal cues, after ingesting the oxytocin.

Dr. Yamasue believes the oxytocin spray works as quickly as 20 minutes after administration, but that the effects are not long-term, suggesting that it would need to be taken on a regular basis for continued results.

Other research studies have shown that oxytocin may have promise as a treatment for certain symptoms of autism. A report published by the Yale University Child Study Center found that oxytocin enhanced brain function in children with autism. Another study in France found that thirteen individuals with autism showed improved eye contact and ability to read social cues after inhaling oxytocin. Another study at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, found that monkeys were more likely to share fruit juice with other monkeys after ingesting oxytocin.

While the research is promising, it is still unclear whether oxytocin is suitable as a long-term treatment for individuals with autism. Andrea Roberts, research associate in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said:

“I think the prior studies show that there is a potential for oxytocin to be slightly beneficial to people with [autism spectrum disorder], but the evidence for the long-term, meaningful levels of effectiveness is unfortunately not yet there.”

Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park was more optimistic. He said:

“Recent studies have suggested that oxytocin can have a favorable effect on the social behaviors of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. [And] this new study suggests that the effects of oxytocin, from an experimental standpoint, may not be as narrow as previously believed.”

He goes on to say:

“it will likely be several years before we have a clearer understanding of whether oxytocin is a safe and effective treatment.”