Treatments

Scientists Intrigued By Hormone Spray For Autism

Is there no social problem the hormone oxytocin can't ease just a little?

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
iStockphoto.com

We're not convinced a test of the hormone in 13 people diagnosed with Asperger's and mild autism settles the question for a broader group of people with the disorder.

But there's quite a buzz over the small experiment in which some French researchers sprayed the hormone in the noses of autistic test subjects before they played a video game that involved some computer-generated players.

The mildly autistic people were more likely to feel cooperative after a spritz of oxytocin than when they got a placebo. They also spent more time looking at the eyes in images of human faces in another part of the test. The results were just published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oxytocin plays an important role in childbirth, breastfeeding and helping forge the bond between mother and child. In recent years, the hormone has been found to influence a broader range of human emotions, even increasing the level of trust that one person has for another.

Some scientists have found clues that an oxytocin deficit could be part of the autism story.

British science writer Ed Yong blogged about the paper here. Some autism researchers he talked with were intrigued by the results, but said the hypothesis needs to be put to a fuller, real-world test. "Against my initial scepticism... I found the paper very persuasive," Dr. Uta Frith at University College London told Yong. Dr. George Anderson, an autism researcher at Yale, isn't so sure oxytocin could be a practical drug for autism treatment even if further experiments bear fruit. The hormone doesn't last long in the body and has trouble crossing from the blood into the brain, he told Yong.

Even so, some families have already tried oxytocin therapy, the Washington Post reports. The data to support the approach are extremely limited—especially in children, Clara Lajonchere, VP of clinical programs for Autism Speaks, told the paper. "We have to be careful about the safety and efficacy of oxytocin on pediatric populations," she said.

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