Autism and oxytocin: facilitating social interaction?

Oxytocin: Hormonal bliss

Oxytocin is a peptide hormone the brain produces in the posterior pituitary. It appears to play many roles in our lives, starting with birth, when it manifests one of the few examples of positive feedback during labor: The more you make, the more you make, until the uterus, the most powerful muscle in the body, contracts sufficiently and frequently enough to push a baby out of an area through which you’d think no baby could fit. In fact, in many childbirths, a synthetic form of oxytocin is used to facilitate labor. Following the birth experience, oxytocin works further magic by facilitating the mother-child bond.

Oxytocin doesn’t stop there, however. It also appears to function in facilitating trust among adults. One study found that a whiff of the hormone caused study participants to be more likely to continue in their trusting behavior, even if the target of their trust had betrayed them.

Social deficits characterize autism

Autism is a term that describes a broad spectrum of developmental manifestations that can include problems with verbal communication, social interaction, and motor skills. Some research has indicated that people with autism may have comparatively low levels of oxytocin, which has led to the hypothesis that boosting these levels might facilitate a greater social understanding for them.

Oxytocin boosts social skills?

A recent study from France published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences appears to bear out this idea. Caveats include the fact that while it was a controlled clinical trial, the study involved only 13 autistic people who had been diagnosed either with high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s (and 13 age-matched non-autistic participants). The low number of participants and the mix of diagnoses (there is controversy about the overlap or equivalency of HFA vs. Asperger’s) mean that these findings qualify as suggestive only. In addition, the authors in their paper offer some assumptions about autism that do not necessarily apply or apply in equal measure among all autistic people.

With those caveats in mind, the study findings remain intriguing. The autistic participants exhibited a greater awareness of social dynamics after exposure to oxytocin, in addition to also having higher measured levels of the hormone in their blood. Oxytocin, like most hormones, does not persist for long, and these effects would be expected to be only transient.

Is it direct improvement of social function or diminished social anxiety?

Among the assumptions the paper authors make about autism, one is that autistic people do not engage in eye contact and that this indicates a lack of social engagement. Another assumption is that the autistic participants were unable to understand the social dynamics without oxytocin because of a social incapacity.

Other studies, however, suggest a relationship between increased oxytocin and reduced social anxiety. Social anxiety can be a paramount manifestation in autism, and social phobias in general translate into an apparent inability to socialize. So the question that remains is, Did the oxytocin in this study somehow directly affect social capacity in these participants, or did it lower their social anxiety sufficiently enough that they could more comfortably engage in social interpretation?

Ideas for questions

The brain releases oxytocin from the posterior pituitary. Can you identify the feedback pathway that causes this release? What other hormone or hormones does the posterior pituitary release? What about the anterior pituitary?

Oxytocin is involved in parent-child bonding. Were you aware that this “natural” bond has a hormone underlying it? Do you think that this applies only in human parent-child bonding? Research this question and explain why or why not.

One problem autistic people sometimes encounter is being too trusting because they do not recognize when someone is cheating them. Given findings in other studies that oxytocin facilitates trust in people even when they have experienced betrayal, how do you think these results might affect any effort to apply oxytocin therapeutically in autism?

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