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Oxytocin and Autism

written by: Michelle Burton • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/22/2010

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of oxytocin in autistic patients, some scientists believe that one particular small study sounds promising. Possible benefits of oxytocin include increased attentiveness and reduced fear of others.

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    What is Oxytocin?

    Oxytocin is a natural hormone produced by the hypothalamus in humans. The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain and it produces hormones that control mood, sleep, hunger, body temperature, and thirst. Synthetic oxytocin is widely used in obstetrics practice to incite the secretion of breast milk, manage bleeding after delivery, and to prompt uterine contractions during labor. This has been the drug's intended use since its synthesis by American chemist Vincent du Vigneaud in 1953. Since then, no large studies have been conducted that offer a definitive description of oxytocin relative to its effect on individuals with autism.

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    How Does Oxytocin Work?

    How oxytocin works for women in childbirth and post labor is clear, but how it works in autistic patients has not been confirmed. In pregnant women, oxytocin helps speed the labor process by attracting proteins contained in the smooth muscle cells of the uterus. In large amounts, oxytocin causes the muscles to contract, inducing labor. If oxytocin is administered shortly after a newborn begins to feed from its mother’s breast, the hormone activates the flow of milk by prompting contractions in muscle cells located near the glands that contain milk. In addition, by prompting contractions, oxytocin also controls any possible postpartum hemorrhaging.

    One of the first studies on oxytocin and autism observed a small number of individuals at play and during visual tests. The study, which observed 13 participants, noted certain of their actions during ball games and while they were looking at pictures of faces. After inhaling oxytocin, the scientists noted that the patients displayed a higher level of attentiveness and they were able to “discriminate” between different player profiles.

    Some scientists suggest that the hormone oxytocin is deficient in autistic individuals and this is why it seemed to work in the 13 subjects. Studies also suggest that oxytocin plays an important role in regulating emotional and social behavior. However, a majority of the research and numerous conflicting studies suggest that there are no known disorders associated with under- or overproduction of oxytocin.

    The study involving the 13 subjects, ages 17-39 with an average age of 26, was conducted by a research team at the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive (CNRS) in France.

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    Benefits of Oxytocin

    Based on the oxytocin and autism study of 13 subjects, along with other research findings, the CNRS research team believes that when inhaled, oxytocin has numerous benefits. In addition to those mentioned above the scientists also believe it promotes social relations and reduces fear of others.

    The research team said that while oxytocin sounds promising, much work has to be done to determine the long-term effects of the synthetic drug and whether it would be effective in the early stages of autism. Currently, oxytocin is available only by prescription and to date; it is mainly administered intravenously, to lactating women, in hospitals.

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    References

    Attwood, Tony. The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007.

    "oxytocin." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2010 <http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9057845>.

    CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange). "Autism: Oxytocin Improves Social Behavior of Patients, Study Finds." ScienceDaily 17 February 2010. 19 September 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2010/02/100216221350.htm>.