New research suggests that the beneficial effects of oxytocin may help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
A hallmark of ASD is difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people. Functional imaging studies, using fMRI, have shown that people with ASD have altered brain activity when looking at people’s faces.
Scientists know that the hormone oxytocin plays an important role in human social interaction. Many studies have shown that there are beneficial effects of oxytocin for increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
Oxytocin affects social processing in people with ASD
“In the present study, we were interested in the question of whether a single dose of oxytocin would change brain responses to social compared to non-social stimuli in individuals with autism spectrum disorder,” explained Dr. Gregor Domes, University of Freiburg and first author of the new study.
The researchers found exactly that. Oxytocin did show an effect on social processing in the individuals with ASD.
“Oxytocin may help to treat a basic brain function that goes awry in autism spectrum disorders,” stated Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry, where the report was published.
Affecting a relevant part of the brain
The study used two groups of 14 people, a control group and a group with ASD. They performed face- and house-matching tasks while being monitored by imaging scans. They completed the tasks twice, once after using a nasal inhalant. Half the group received oxytocin and the other half a placebo.
The data showed that oxytocin specifically increases responses of the amygdala to social stimuli in individuals with ASD. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with emotional stimuli, fight or flight, and face recognition.
Promising start, more research needed
While the sampling was small, the finding is encouraging and may suggest that oxytocin could promote the salience of social stimuli in ASD. This could in turn support behavioral training of social skills.