Using Oxytocin to Treat Autism

From guest blogger Kelly Zalocusky: Oxytocin is a member of a neuropeptide family, the nonapeptides, that is conserved across vertebrates. Its close cousins include isotocin, particular to fish, and mesotocin, found in amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Members of this family are known for their role in prosocial behavior, particularly maternal and sexual behaviors. In humans, oxytocin has also been associated with trust and with the ability to process facial expressions.

Interestingly, children with autism are frequently found to have low circulating oxytocin and an abundance of oxytocin precursors in the blood, indicating a deficit in the synthesis of this important neuropeptide.

In this week's online early-release of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Elissar Andari and colleagues explored the possibility of treating the social symptoms of high-functioning autism spectrum disorder patients with an oxytocin nasal spray. In a computer-simulated ball-tossing game, autism spectrum disorder patients showed no preference among "players" who reciprocated by regularly returning the ball, and those who never returned the ball. In those patients that received the nasal spray, however, trust and preference for the good/friendly player increased relative to the bad/unfriendly player, such that the autistic persons' reponses no longer differed significantly from those of healthy controls. Treated individuals also performed better in a face-scanning task, spending more time focused on socially-relevant face regions, such as the eyes.

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Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog