Hormone Oxytocin Offers Possible Autism Treatment

Study finds hormone improves social interaction, emotional engagement in subjects with autism
By Jeff Muise
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Treatment with the hormone oxytocin improves social interactions and performance, and enhances feelings of trust in subjects with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome during simulated social interaction, according to a study published online Feb. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Elissar Andari, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Bron, France, and colleagues administered oxytocin or placebo to 13 subjects with autism spectrum conditions (mean age, 26 years) during separate sessions playing Cyberball, a computer ball-toss game featuring social interaction with fictional characters. A control group of 13 sex- and age-matched healthy subjects also played the game for comparison. The subjects' performance under oxytocin or placebo was observed, including the distribution of ball tosses to the game's "good" and "bad" characters in response to social cues, the subjects' emotional response to the characters, and, in another exercise, the subjects' eye movement as they scanned pictures of faces.

The researchers found that the oxytocin subjects directed the ball significantly more often to the good characters than to the bad players. These subjects also reported feeling more trust toward the good than the bad characters. Finally, the researchers reported that the oxytocin subjects gazed longer at faces and had a reduced frequency of rapid eye movements.

"Thus, under oxytocin, patients respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behavior and affect, suggesting a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism," the authors write.

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