New Yale Study Looks at Oxytocin and the Autistic Brain

Dec 3, 2013

A new Yale study offers hope for parents who have children with autism spectrum disorders. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the double-blind, placebo-controlled study consisted of 17 children and adolescents considered to have moderate- to high-functioning autism. 

Each of the children were given a nasal spray of oxytocin, a powerful hormone produced by mammals, and a placebo. Kevin Pelphry, the Harris professor in Yale's Child Study Center, and one of the authors of the study, said the results were dramatic. "The oxytocin led to stronger activations in the social parts of the brain, what we call the social brain," Pelphrey said, "and then decreased activation in the parts of the brain that processed objects. "

The spray increased social brain activity for about two hours. That means one day, children with autism spectrum disorders will have to use the oxytocin spray multiple times a day.

Kevin Pelphry said before that happens, researchers still need to learn about the effects of taking oxytocin multiple times a day for decades. "Is it the case that if you introduce a fairly large amount of oxytocin over a period of time, and the body naturally makes oxytocin, will the body stop making oxytocin?" he asked. "Do you end up not having an effect with long term administration, because the body adjusts to the long term presence of the oxytocin that we are introducing from the outside? So that's a concern, and an open question at this point."