Oxytocin activates ‘social’ brain regions in children with autism

Researchers from Yale University have found that while engaging with social information, children with autism spectrum disorders experienced enhanced brain activity after a single dose of the hormone oxytocin was administered through a nasal spray.

Results of their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body that has been implicated in social bonding. In fact, other research recently found that oxytocin stimulates the reward center in the brain, increasing partner attractiveness and strengthening monogamy.

According to the researchers from Yale, theirs is the first study to analyze how oxytocin affects brain function in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Led by study author Ilanit Gordon, the team conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment involving 17 children and adolescents with ASDs who were between the ages of 8 and 16.5.

After the participants were given either the oxytocin spray or a placebo, the researchers measured brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while the children and adolescents judged both socially and non-socially meaningful pictures.

The “social” pictures were images of eyes, whereas the “non-social” pictures were images of vehicles.

Because autism is a result of a neurological disorder that affects normal brain function, individuals with ASD have difficulty with communication and social interaction skills.

How the brains of these individuals react to socially meaningful images is therefore helpful for treatments that “target the core social dysfunction in ASD,” the researchers note.

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