Oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding that is administered either as a sublingual tablet or nasal spray, can have beneficial effects as a biomedical treatment for individuals with an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD).
Autism typically involves speech/language problems (communication issues), lack of social bonding or interest in peers, repetitive and odd behaviors, and sensory problems (taste, touch, and sound sensitivities). Some ASD individuals have severe anxiety and trust issues. In some cases their anxiety can contribute to aggressive or defensive behavior. The anxiety, particularly social, can be a hindrance for one-on-one relationships and in group settings. Obviously, aggressive behavior is problematic for everyone involved.
A natural hormone called oxytocin helps with improved social interaction. It acts to decrease nerve signaling from an area in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala transmits impulses that are connected to a perceived threat. One function of oxytocin is to silence fear from this area in the brain, hence, diminishing the behavior of anxiety and apprehension.
Researchers at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine believe that oxytocin could be a useful therapy for autism because the physiological function of oxytocin fits with those characteristics commonly seen in ASD individuals, “studies with animals have found that oxytocin is involved in a variety of behaviors, including adult-to-adult and parent-child bonding, social memory and cognition, reduction of anxiety and repetitive behaviors,” states researcher Jennifer Bartz.
The Mt. Sinai research team did an infusion study with a group of autistic and Asperger adults. What they found was both a “reduction of repetitive behaviors. No reduction occurred in the placebo group,” reported Eric Hollander. The research group also evaluated the positive effects of oxytocin on social cognition (the ability to detect facial or voice emotional cues). Each participant listened to pre-recorded speech patterns with various intonations such as happiness, frustration, anger, etc. Each member of the study then had to try and identify the emotion they were hearing. The participants who received oxytocin were able to retain their ability for emotional cue recognition up to two weeks after, whereas those that received a placebo had no change.
Each researcher at Mt. Sinai acknowledged that more research is needed, particularly with oxytocin use in children. However, the results of this study are promising because it shows that a hormone can have wide-sweeping effects for many behavioral and cognitive challenges seen in autism.
To get a more comprehensive picture of oxytocin, listed here are some additional benefits:
Reduces blood pressure and regulates abnormal cortisol levels
Decreases anxiety, social anxiety and fear
Increases bonding and feelings of love
Improves social interactions and feelings of trust
Improves pain thresholds, as well as promotes growth and healing
Involved in milk production and let-down during breast-feeding, and plays a major role in mother
In short, this is a very interesting hormone and a worthwhile biomedical treatment to consider for individuals on the autism-spectrum who have social disinterest and fear, anxiety, and trust issues. Also, oxytocins ability to enhance facial recognition cues can be important for more normal social interaction and relationship development.
Oxytocin as a biomedical autism treatment in my experience is best delivered through a nasal spray or sublingual tablet. Both work well and sometimes either route needs to be tried to see what works best for a particular child. Oxytocin is generally used once to twice daily, or as needed in times of heightened fear and anxiety.
I have not seen any adverse reactions to oxytocin. However, like anything in medicine, particularly when dealing with hormone chemistry, some caution is warranted. It is important to recognize that hormones have profound effects throughout the body and can influence other physiological changes. Oxytocin does have some influence on sodium levels, as well as glucagon and insulin – which affects blood sugar. My feeling is that continued use of a product like oxytocin needs to be monitored with periodic blood work to check various levels of blood chemistry.