Early research on the hormone (neuromodulator) oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”) suggests nasal spray administration of the hormone may play a role in future treatment of persons with mild to moderate Autism Spectrum Disorder. Oxytocin is associated with emotional bonding, empathy and attachment. It is naturally released during childbirth, lactation, touching and sexual relations.
A 2013 Yale study found interesting results when children with mild levels of autism were given a nasal spray of oxytocin before engaging in experimental tasks. One set of tasks involved perceiving social emotional situations. Later, they were given the task of perceiving objects and vehicles. The children’s brains were scanned using Functional Magnet Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in order to see if the regions of the brain responsible for reward, social behavior and emotional functioning changed. Children, to whom nasal spray oxytocin was administered, were more responsive to the social-emotional stimuli and less responsive to the object/vehicle stimulation. Preliminary results suggest nasal spray oxytocin temporarily effects brain circuitry functioning responsible for reward and social perception.
How might this therapy be used? Some researchers see oxytocin nasal spray therapy as a way of boosting the results of behavioral therapy or specific social experiences since the effects of the hormone are time-limited. Oxytocin could prime the brain to be more receptive and responsive to social information and, therefore, increase learning.
However, more research is needed before people begin to use the nasal spray hormone as a treatment for autism. Oxytocin nasal spray is not an approved FDA treatment for autism or improving social cognition. Oxytocin (Pitocin) is, however, FDA approved as an injectable medication used during labor and delivery. Too much oxytocin nasal spray can have ill effects and determining the right dosage is a long way away. In healthy males, too much oxytocin nasal spray produced territoriality. In persons with Borderline Personality Disorder, any amount produced greater distrustfulness and hypervigilance.
In 2013, National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) awarded a $12.6 billion grant to fund national trials of oxytocin nasal spray treatment with persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The purpose of study, called SOARS-B (Study of Oxytocin in Autism to Improve Reciprocal Social Behaviors), is to identify how treatment alters brain activity and genetic expression associated with sociability.
For more information see:
Belluck, P. (2013, December 2). Oxytocin found to stimulate social brain regions in children with autism. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/03/health/oxytocin-found-to-stimulate-brain-in-children-with-autism.html
Bergland, C. (2013, August 5). The neurobiology of the “love hormone” revealed: Neuroscientists link oxytocin to love and autism spectrum disorder. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201308/the-neurobiology-the-love-hormone-revealed
Green, J. J., & Hollander, E. (2010). Autism and oxytocin: New developments in translational approaches to therapeutics. Neurotherapeutics, 7(3), 250-257. dio:10.1016/j.nurt.2010.05.006
By Dr. P. Douglas Callan, PhD, LP, Core Faculty at MSP
Along with being a Core Faculty member at MSP, Dr. Callan has a clinical/health psychology practice in Fenton, MI specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for adults and older adolescents with complicating psychosocial aspects of medical disorders, depression, anxiety, life changing events, and PTSD. He also is trained as a neuropsychologist performing assessment with an emphasis in pediatric neuropsychology specializing in learning disorders and ADHD assessment.