BY NOAH GLENN
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experienced improvements in social functioning after treatment of oxytocin, a powerful hormone that plays an important role in childbirth and social recognition and bonding. That's according to a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America online June 6.
Concentration of oxytocin in the bloodstream is thought to be a biomarker of social functioning. Earlier studies have tested the hormone in children with ASD but results have been mixed, perhaps because the mechanism of oxytocin, a chemical in the brain that helps neurons communicate with each other, can vary from person to person.
How the Study Worked
Researchers at Stanford University tested the safety and efficacy of an oxytocin nasal spray in 32 children—27 boys and five girls ages 6 to 12—with ASD. Before the study began, researchers took blood samples from all participants to measure levels of oxytocin. During the four-week treatment period, 14 children—13 boys and 1 girl—received 48 mg of oxytocin via nasal spray twice a day, and 17 were given a placebo. All children were observed using the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) both before and after the trial. The questionnaire rates how closely children exhibit socially impaired behavior; higher scores indicate worse impairment.
Spray Improved Social Functioning
Children treated with the nasal spray saw improvements in communication and social awareness and motivation as measured by the SRS scale compared to children who received a placebo. Furthermore, the children whose pretrial blood samples had the lowest concentrations of oxytocin demonstrated the most improvement at the end of the trial.
Researchers point out that several aspects of their study may have affected the results. First, 84 percent of the participants were boys so sex differences may account for the disparity in response. Second, participants were allowed to take other medications during the study, as long as they were known not to interfere with the nasal spray.
Finally, the Social Responsiveness Scale depended on reporting from the children's parents, which may have been subjective or biased.
New Parameter for Future Studies
The researchers believe that all future trials on this topic should measure concentrations of oxytocin beforehand to determine how effective oxytocin is for autism but also other disorders that affect social impairment, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and traumatic brain injury.