Sunday, May 20, 2012

Oxytocin can help children with autism

Oxytocin is a hormone produced inside the brain, and commonly referred to as the love hormone. It has several functions, including bonding between people, but also sexual behaviour. Not only does it help people have affection for each other, it also functions by establishing maternal behaviour, meaning it helps the mother to establish a connection with her child, even during pregnancy. To the general public, the love hormone is mostly known for its role in breastfeeding after giving birth. However, it has many more functions ranging across a wide variety of social interactions. Lack of oxytocin is associated with adverse social behaviour, and additional proof for this notion is found by scientists from Yale School of Medicine. They showed that oxytocin can help children suffering from autism. As is generally known, autistic kids often have problems with social interaction, and it is caused by brain changes that are, at least partly, induced by genes.

In their study, Yale scientists used oxytocin as a treatment for kids aged between 7 and 18 years old, and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, which is the common name for malfunctions in social behaviour. The participating kids received just a single dose of oxytocin, administered nasally, after which the effect on the brain was assessed by performing an MRI scan.
Structure of oxytocin.
Autistic kids receiving the single oxytocin treatment were found to have increased activity in brain areas that cope with processing social information. Especially the increase in activity of brain circuits that aid in understanding other people seems relevant for those diagnosed with autism. One of the social malfunctions of autism is the inability to understand how other people feel and think. Therefore, it seems that oxytocin treatment helps alleviate the 'core' symptoms of autism.

Even though the participants in the study were only given a single dose of oxytocin, it did seem to have an effect on the brain. Naturally, it is necessary to assess the effects of prolonged exposure, and also to analyze corresponding behavioural patterns: it is not helpful if changes can only be observed in the brain. The study does provide evidence for the beneficial effects of oxytocin, warranting further investigation. It could very well be that kids suffering from autism just need a bit of love 'bottled' in hormone therapy to rid them of their social malfunctions.

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