A natural hormone boosts social skills for autistic patients
A nasal spray containing the hormone linked to bonding helps people with autism become more sociable and trusting, scientists have found. Participants in a study, who inhaled the spray containing oxytocin, were able to interact more easily with others.
The research was carried out on 13 patients with high-functioning autism, defined as those of normal or above-normal intelligence.
Autism impedes the ability to communicate or form relationships. Many people with the condition find eye contact difficult.
“Under oxytocin, patients with high-functioning autism respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behaviour,” wrote Elissar Andari, of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives, a French government centre for neuroscience research.
In a summary of her presentation to the Mediterranean Conference of Neuroscience, held in Egypt, she said the results “suggested a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism”.
About 500,000 Britons have autism, with many suffering exclusion from school and long-term unemployment because of the associated behavioural problems.
As well as communication problems, people with autism can also experience over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.
The researchers pointed out that the effects of the nasal spray were transient and the findings did not mean that a therapy was imminent.
Any proposed medication would have to undergo extensive testing, which could take years.
In the study, the subjects were asked to inhale oxytocin and then to undergo two tests to see if the hormone had altered their behaviour.
One test involved playing a simulated ball game on a computer with three virtual players.
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After inhaling oxytocin, the 13 patients could work out which of the virtual players was most co-operative and trustworthy much more effectively than subjects who had received a placebo.
The 13 subjects were next asked to look at pictures of faces to test their ability to look into people’s eyes.
Ms Andari wrote: “Oxytocin selectively increased patient’s gazing time on the socially informative region of the face such as the eyes.”
Gina Gómez de la Cuesta, research leader at the National Autistic Society, said:
“A number of studies have found that oxytocin appears to play a key role in social behaviour and social understanding.
“However further rigorous scientific evaluation necessary before we can fully assess any potential benefits.
“As autism is a spectrum condition, which affects people in very different ways, any intervention that may help one person may not be effective for another.”