New study may point the way toward better treatment of autism

The so-called "love hormone" may be key to treating autism.Autism has become one of the most important health issues of our time, with everyone from parents to physicians to certified medical assistants struggling to find a way to treat children who have been diagnosed with the syndrome. But now there appears to be one option that is making a difference, and its success could lead to further breakthroughs in the treatment of this condition.

“Love hormone” cause for optimism

Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone because of its ability to temporarily improve social bonding, is at the heart of a recent study into treatments for autism. In a small study conducted by Yale University, and published on Monday, Dec. 2, in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,1 researchers found that giving an autistic child a nasal spray that contained oxytocin increased activity in a part of the brain that regulates social connectivity.

“Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism,” study researcher Ilanit Gordon told LiveScience, “It means that there’s a change in the brain that we read as positive and exciting, but we need to learn how to utilize it to create a change in real-life behavior.”

While only 17 children were involved in the study, the positive findings were enough to stir up excitement in parents, doctors and researchers who treated autism. At the same time, experts urged people to be cautious in their optimism, since the results were seen as temporary and still required more study.

Background of oxytocin and autism

Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the brain and it is believed to play an important role in regulating social connections like emotional bonding, trust and love. Previously, lower levels of the hormone have been found in people diagnosed with autism. That led to the theory that raising oxytocin levels in people with social disorders could at least alleviate some of the symptoms.

However, most of the studies conducted into oxytocin’s effectiveness in treating autism, especially over a longer course of treatment, have yielded weak or even negative results. The recent Yale study only measured brain activity, which showed improvement, but the subjects didn’t show an increased ability to identify mental states based on social cues like the assessment of a person’s eyes.

While the results of the study were mixed, they have taken researchers one step closer to identifying possible ways to treat a disorder that affects about 1 in every 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.3

1 Belluck, Pam, “Oxytocin Found to Stimulate Social Brain Regions in Children With Autism,” New York Times, Dec. 2, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/health/oxytocin-found-to-stimulate-brain-in-children-with-autism.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&rref=health&hpw
​2 Ghollpour, Bahar, “Oxytocin Boosts Social Areas of Brain in Kids with Autism, Study Finds,” LiveScience, Dec. 2, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/oxytocin-boosts-social-areas-brain-kids-autism-study-finds-2D11674299
3 “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) – Data & Statistics,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

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