Does Oyxtocin Increase Social Awareness in Autistic Patients?

Oxytocin has hit the headlines in recent years as the role of the hormone in social bonding has been repeatedly confirmed by scientific researchers. Quickly nicknamed the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘cuddle hormone’, the race is now on to investigate whether the seemingly magical social bonding powers of oxytocin could form the basis for a medical treatment to those suffering from social functioning deficits – particularly autism.

Larry J Young was one of the first researchers to examine oxytocin in relation to social bonding, and like other early research attempts, this was done through studying the behaviour of famously monogamous prairie voles. Young, and others, discovered that oxytocin appears to play a major role in prairie vole monogamy. This built on early knowledge that oxytocin (a primarily female hormone) played in an important role in child birth and the bonding between a mother and her new born child.

Young believes that oxytocin could be used to help autistic children improve their social functioning, in addition to more traditional means such as behavioural therapy, as he explained in an interview published this week.

The animals I studied, prairie voles, form strong bonds. Once a male and a female pair up, that partner is very rewarding to them and they want to be with that partner. This also involves oxytocin. In terms of pair bonding, oxytocin enhances the signal of the partner, allowing it to reach the reward center of the brain essential for linking the neural encoding of the partner to reward.

How does this relate to autism?
Young: Children with autism have difficulty in interpreting emotions in others. The idea is that oxytocin could enhance their attention to the social information around them. One of the deficits in autism is that social information is not that salient to these patients; they’re not drawn to someone’s eyes like most of us are drawn to the eyes. Some studies have shown that they have difficulty recognizing faces, they have difficulty interpreting emotions in others. The idea is that oxytocin will enhance their attention to the social information around them, helping them to navigate in the social world.

In acute studies, researchers have given oxytocin to patients with autism and evaluated whether it helps them read emotions better. However, the effect is very short — an hour later, the oxytocin is gone. In studies on chronic use, oxytocin is given every morning and evening. The problem with that is, if you give a child oxytocin before you send them off to school, it may intensify the experience of negative social stimuli. Kids can be mean; kids bully. So, we’ve suddenly turned up the ability of these kids’ brains to pay attention to others around them, and that might not be a positive experience. That’s the mistake of the recent trials that have been done. If you view oxytocin as enhancing the salience of social stimuli, then you want to control those social stimuli.

You can read the full interview here.

The Power of Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a naturally occuring hormone that has long been associated with pregnancy and breast feeding in women. Scientists suspected that it may have a role in the bonding that occurs between a mother and her new born child, and this – as well as a wider role in social bonding in general – was first confirmed in a 2003 study1 involving prairie voles. The levels of oxytocin in these famously monogamous mammals was found to increase in the brain of the female vole during sex with its partner.

Since that noted study, countless other research teams have explored and confirmed further the role of oxytocin in bonding, empathy, trust, and even sexual attraction. These findings, often reported in the mainstream media and press, have given oxytocin the popular tage of the ‘love hormone’, the ‘cuddle hormone’, or the ‘trust hormone’. But to complicate matters, several studies appear to have suggested that the love hormone may have a darker side – among other things, possibly reinforcing ingroup and outgroup preferences, potentially being a cause of racism.

The Wikipedia page for Oxytocin gives a very good overview, as well as this interesting LiveScience article on 11 interesting effects of oxytocin.

[1] Vacek, Marla (2002). “High on Fidelity: What can voles teach us about monogamy?”. American Scientist.

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