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Oxytocin Ups Social Brain Activity in Children with ASD

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on December 10, 2013


Background: Oxytocin is a hormone most commonly associated with childbirth and lactation, and recent studies have explored its role in maternal, romantic, and social bonding. For instance, when given oxytocin through the nose, typically developing adults showed improvement in eye contact, trust, and reading emotions from facial expressions.


What’s New: On December 2, 2013, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) published a paper exploring the cognitive effects of oxytocin in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a randomized, double-blind study, the researchers assigned 17 children aged eight to 16.5 to receive a single oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo. Brain scans of children in the treatment arm showed increased activity in certain areas of the brain when the researchers asked them to assess expression in photos of eyes. The brain areas with increased activity included those associated with motivation, higher information processing, sleep, decision-making, and social perception. Activity of the same brain areas decreased in participants who received oxytocin when they were asked to categorize images of automobiles.


Why it’s important: While it used a small sample size, this study demonstrates that therapeutic oxytocin might help children with ASD respond more appropriately to social versus non-social stimuli.

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