Autism in children may be helped by using a single spray of oxytocin in their nose. A recent study has shown that it enhances brain activity while processing social information in children with the pervasive developmental disorder. It was the first study done in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD’s). Pelphrey, Gordon and Colleagues performed a double-blind study with placebo control on 17 children included adolescents who were on the ASD spectrum.
Participants were within the ages of 8 and 16.5 years of age. The children were randomly given either a placebo nasal spray or an oxytocin spray while partaking in a social judgment task. Oxytocin is a natural hormone the brain excretes and travels throughout the body as well. It was found that the brain centers that work with reward and emotion and it showed a positive reaction during social tasks, compared to those who did not receive the active oxytocin nasal spray.
The nasal spray seemed to help normalize the brain areas that work with impaired social connections in autistic children. Oxytocin helped the children refocus more on social stimuli such as faces, and less on non-social stimuli such as trains. This is the process, called social attunement, in which the brain areas involved with social connection and behavior are stimulated with the hormone oxytocin.
Findings from the study do not mean that children with autism can be totally treated with one dose of the oxytocin spray. It simply means that the brain is experiencing a change that can be read as exciting and positive. Doctors need to learn how to use this information in order to improve social impairments in autistic children.
Oxytocin produces happy feelings from the brain, such as trust and love, and drives emotional bonding and social interaction. This hormone in previous research has been given to adults and children with only weak to negative data results. When given over a period of days, there were only modest differences or no social improvements what so ever.
In older studies the levels of oxytocin were much lower in autistic children than in non-autistic individuals, so there was a suggestion that it may help treat social difficulties in autistic children. In the new study, it was found that the hormone had little to no effect on the children, but it did show a greater amount of activity in the social areas of the brain. That boost in brain activity could possibly improve behavioral treatments as a co-operative treatment. Researchers say there is a window of opportunity that increases processing efficiency in autistic children and this open window may be the time to teach kids during behavioral therapies.
Gordon mentioned that such a study is extremely important in helping to treat autism due to the social problems that come with the disorder. It is still unknown to scientists on exactly how the brain is affected by hormones and how it could affect social processing. One theory suggests that the treatment could make social interacting feel more rewarding to children on the autism spectrum. It may also help information pertaining to socialization with other humans more appealing than spending so much time on non-socializing aspects such as objects. So with combined efforts and future research, the oxytocin spray may be another tool to add to the therapist tool box in helping children with autism learn social skills more effectively.
By Tina Elliott