Can oxytocin, the “love hormone” treat a core symptom of Autism?
By Lirio Sobrevinas-Covey, Ph.D.
Social skills deficits – in communication, ability to interact with others, and lack of empathy, mark one of the two defining criteria of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). (The other is repetitive and restrictive behaviors).
This background underlies the measured excitement among autism researchers in the possibility that oxytocin, found to play a positive role in the neuroanatomy of bonding and intimacy relationships, might be effective in ameliorating one of the two core symptoms of ASD. No drug has been found to treat the debilitating social skills deficit of persons with ASD.
In animal and human studies, oxytocin, a natural peptide found in the hypothalamus, has demonstrated promise for enhancing response to social stimuli and improving social interactions and communication. Oxytocin has been dubbed – “the love hormone”, “the cuddle hormone”, or “the bonding hormone”.
In human studies, oxytocin was administered intra-nasally. Observed outcomes included improvements in social cognition, empathy, and reciprocity. Adverse effects were not reported.
Not all studies yielded positive outcomes, however. These early studies also suggested that intermittent rather than chronic oxytocin treatment is prefferrable.
It remains unclear if oxytocin treatment effects are moderated by differences in dosage, duration of use, the patient’s age, and environmental influences. Combining oxycotin with behavioral treatments has been considered as a possibly desirable approach.
Oxytocin and Asperger’s Disorder? In my view, results of research studies on the "love hormone" offer special promise for persons with Asperger’s Disorder (AD), one of the conditions that fall under the rubric of Pervasive Development Mental Disorder, along with Autism, in the DSM-IV. Children and adults with AD have characteristics that meet the core symptoms of ASD, notably, impairment in effective social interaction and communication; but, differently from the other ASD subgroups, they are not typically impaired in cognitive functioning, language ability, or academic skills. Thus, Asperger’s adults are often characterized by achievement in the educational area; however, the social skills deficits handicap them in gaining employment commensurate to their academic training and occupational skills. The job interview, for instance, where social impact on the potential employer is important, can function as a formidable barrier.
Investigations into the potential therapeutic application of oxytocin are still in early stages. Available data are insufficient for physicians to prescribe oxytocin. Still, in the face of a lack of treatment for the core symptoms of ASD, oxytocin is an exciting potential treatment.
Larry J. Young an Catherine E. Barrett. Can oxytocin treat autism? Science. 2015 February 20; 347(6224): 825–826.