‘Love Hormone’ Boosts Brain Activity in Autistic Children

A dose of the hormone oxytocin given to children with mild autism disorders boosted activity in key brain regions that affect social judgments, Yale University researchers found.

Children received a nasal spray of oxytocin or a placebo before being asked to label emotions from pictures of eyes. In those who received oxytocin, sometimes known as the love hormone for its effects on bonding, brain activity was enhanced in areas involving social processing, according to the research published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study involved 17 children ages 8 to 16 whose brain activity was measured with magnetic resonance imaging.

“We have a set of brain regions we know have to do with social processing, social cognition and reward, and those regions had enhanced activation induced by oxytocin,” said Ilanit Gordon, the lead author who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, and is now an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “We think maybe it is priming something in the brain that makes social learning or social interactions more optimal.”

The results don’t necessarily mean oxytocin would help as a stand-alone treatment for autism, as a couple of recent studies have shown modest effects, Gordon said. Instead, the hormone may be helpful when given shortly before behavioral therapy sessions to help stimulate the brains of kids with autism to become more amenable to social learning, she said.

“This is a crucial first step for understanding how oxytocin works,” Gordon said in a telephone interview. “We are at the beginning of having oxytocin potentially help, but we are not there yet.”

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain and other parts of the body.

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