Hormone Oxytocin Improves Behavior in Children With Autism

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The synthetic hormone oxytocin, often dubbed the “love hormone,” may have benefits for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Adam Guastella, PhD, of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre in Australia, and colleagues enrolled 31 children between three and eight years old. Twice daily over five weeks, they received oxytocin via a nasal spray.

Following treatment, parents reported that their children were more socially responsive and saw improvements in behavioral issues, the researchers reported in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. The nasal spray was well tolerated, with the most frequently reported adverse events being thirst, urination, and constipation.

Research conducted over the last decade by the Brain and Mind Centre has found that oxytocin treatment improves eye gaze, emotion recognition, and memory. But the study is the first time a medical treatment has shown a benefit for children with autism. Most autism therapies now are focused on behavioral modification, which is costly and has mixed results.

“The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioural, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting,” study co-author Ian Hickie, PhD, said in a statement.  

Hormone Oxytocin Improves Behavior in Children With Autism
A five week treatment with oxytocin significantly improved social, emotional, and behavioral issues among young children with autism.

A five week treatment with the synthetic hormone oxytocin significantly improved social, emotional and behavioral issues among young children with autism, according to University of Sydney research published today in Molecular Psychiatry.

The study, led by researchers at the University's Brain and Mind Centre, is thought to be the first evidence of a medical treatment for social impairments in children with autism. It is also the first clinical trial investigating the efficacy, tolerability and safety of intranasal-administered oxytocin in young children with autism.

Behavioral therapies can improve social, emotional and behavioral impairments but these are typically time consuming (40 hours per week), remain costly and show mixed outcomes. There is currently no medical treatment for these problems.

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