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Hormone may help children with autism, study finds

A hormone that spikes when women are giving birth may hold promise as an autism therapy, according to a new study from a team at Yale University.

Years of research has revealed the potent effects of oxytocin, a hormone that is naturally released during childbirth and has been nicknamed the “love hormone” for the role it appears to play in pair bonding, whether between couples or mother and baby. Then researchers began to administer the hormone to people in non-romantic situations, to see whether it would change their behavior.

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The results were intriguing, suggesting that it helped increase cooperation and trust. As the hormone’s ability to enhance social responses was replicated in other studies, researchers began to wonder whether oxytocin might be helpful for people with autism spectrum disorders, which are characterized by impaired social functioning.

In the new work, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Yale researchers measured what happened in the brains of 17 children with autism spectrum disorder when they inhaled the hormone or a placebo, and were then directed to perform tasks in a brain scanner that used functional MRI technology. One task was designed to use the social parts of the brain — the children were asked to intuit the emotion a person was experiencing by looking at a photo of their eyes. In another, they were simply asked to identify a vehicle.

What the researchers found was that a single spray of the hormone increased functioning in the social parts of the brain when the children were confronted with the eye-reading task, while the activity in those areas decreased during the vehicle-naming task. Their performance on the task was not different, but researchers think the brain signals indicate that oxytocin made the social stimuli more relevant and rewarding.

“What’s happening in the brain, we think, is that oxytocin is improving how well we are tuning in to social stimuli, to a social world,” said Ilanit Gordon, an experimental psychologist who did the work at the Yale Child Study Center and is now an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Gordon noted that this was still early research -- a fact that is underscored by the encouraging but somewhat mixed results that have been reported when behavioral responses to the hormone are measured. Some studies in which people with autism have taken a sniff of the hormone have suggested beneficial results, including more motivation to have social interactions, greater understanding of emotional language, and improved insight into the minds of others. But two other studies that have tested repeated administration of the hormone have shown very modest improvement.

John Gabrieli, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the work, said the new work helps build the case that the hormone could be useful as a treatment.

Gabrieli is just starting a study of oxytocin in young adults with autism spectrum disorders. He plans to test oxytocin not as a treatment in and of itself, but as a way to enhance the effects of social and behavioral therapy.

That’s a strategy that Gordon plans to pursue, too. The brain imaging results suggest that the hormone alone is activating parts of the brain that make social interaction and behavior more rewarding. Perhaps, she thinks, the hormone is cracking open a window in the brain -- something she calls opening up “social pores.” If the hormone were used in combination with behavioral therapies, a child’s brain might be more receptive to the therapy and better able to learn how to function socially.

That’s what she and her colleagues hope to test next.

“If, say, oxytocin is opening these social pores in the brain, we have to utilize it while it’s in the system and give it right before a behavioral intervention,” Gordon said. That way, she said, researchers can see “whether it helps kids be more attuned to what they’re supposed to learn.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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