A clinical trial conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Sydney has found that a synthetic form of oxytocin, affectionately known as the “love hormone,” may improve autism symptoms in children.
An estimated 1 out of every 68 children is diagnosed with Autism-a group of complex brain development disorders characterized by impaired social interaction, social communication, and repetitive or stereotypical behaviours.
While previous research shows that Autism treatments provide an increased opportunity for long-term improvements in behaviour when introduced in the early years of life, there are still few options for effective intervention. Some psychotropic drugs seem to improve some of the behavioural symptoms of Autism, but they are also associated with adverse side effects including rapid weight-gain. Behavioural interventions continue to serve as the most common form of treatment, despite being exceptionally labour-intensive and costly.
The Australian study investigated the effects of oxytocin when administered as a nasal spray to 32 Autistic children aged 3-8. The study took a phased approach, in which participants were administered a placebo in one 5-week phase and the oxytocin in another 5-week phase with a 4-week washout period in between. The washout period, which is a space of time in which all treatment is discontinued, helped to prevent any symptoms or effects from carrying over from the first phase to the second.
After the 5-week course of oxytocin nasal spray, ratings from the children’s caregivers indicated that the participants displayed increased social responsiveness compared to the 5-week placebo course. The study also found that participants tolerated the oxytocin treatment well, with the most common side effects being thirst, urination, and constipation. Researchers say that this study is the first of its kind to support the potential of oxytocin as an early intervention to help improve symptoms for young children with Autism.
C J Yatawara, S L Einfeld, I B Hickie, T A Davenport, and A J Guastella. The effect of oxytocin nasal spray on social interaction deficits observed in young children with autism: a randomized clinical crossover trial. Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication 27 October 2015; doi: 10.1038/mp.2015.162.
Written by Chelsea Houde, MA