Is Oxytocin the Key to Treating Social Deficits in People with Autism?

There are many published studies about the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, from Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland’s work on morality to Ulrike Rimmele’s research into the connection between oxytocin and facial recognition in humans. One promising area, still in the beginning stages, is the use of these hormones to address the social deficits associated with autism.

Oxytocin and vasopressin have been scientifically linked to attachment formation in humans. Larry J. Young, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, has worked at length with voles, studying the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on social relationships, such as those between a mother and her pups or between mates. He spoke about this topic and how he hopes his research can contribute to the treatment of autism yesterday at the Nobel Conference 47: The Brain and Being Human held at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. [To watch the video of the presentation, click here].

Unlike montane voles, which are solitary and promiscuous, prairie voles form strong social bonds with their offspring and their mates. Imaging studies done by Young and his colleagues have shown that distribution of oxytocin and vasopressin differs between these two types of voles, and is likely correlated to the differences in their social behavior.

So how can this information help treat people with autism? People on the autism spectrum tend to suffer from certain social deficits, making it difficult for them to learn important social skills, such as making direct eye contact and identifying social cues and emotions. In current studies, explained Young, researchers are testing oxytocin-based drugs administered intranasally. Thus far they have delivered some positive results; the nose sprays have been shown to increase trust, elongate eye gazes, and enhance memory of familiar faces. That said, Young pointed out that the effects of the drugs don’t last long—they wear off as soon as 45 minutes after drug administration.

Young’s hope is that a drug can be developed that, when paired with behavioral therapy, will enhance social learning in people with autism. He noted that there are currently no approved biologically based drug treatments for social deficits in autism.

A Wall Street Journal article published yesterday also touts the hope that oxytocin studies can lead to treatments for not only autism but also other psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

“[A]s a potential treatment for mental disorders, oxytocin represents ‘a whole new class of pharmaceutical-pro-social compounds,’ said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who conducted some of the earliest work on oxytocin in animals.”

–Ann L. Whitman

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