A dose of the "trust hormone" oxytocin may help bring some autistic people out of their shell. Patients with the condition usually have a hard time interacting with others, but when they inhaled oxytocin in a new study, they began looking at people in the eye and recognizing social concepts like fairness in a computer game. Although the results are preliminary, the work could lead to drugs to treat a variety of social disorders, including schizophrenia and anxiety, says expert Evdokia Anagnostou, a child neurologist at the Bloorview Research Institute in Toronto, Canada.
Oxytocin appears to function as a sort of "social glue" for many mammals. Mice and monkeys release the hormone when they groom and mate, for example, and humans given a dose of oxytocin are more likely to offer a total stranger money, even if they don't get anything in return. Autistic people have less oxytocin circulating in their blood than those without the disorder, so neuroscientist Angela Sirigu of the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive in Lyon, France, wondered whether ramping up the hormone would make them more socially adept.
Sirigu's team asked 13 adults with Asperger's Syndrome--a form of high-functioning autism--to play a computer game of toss. On the "field" were four boxes, indicating three players and the participant. To throw the ball to another player, the participant touched a given box. The computerized players were sometimes friendly, meaning they threw the ball to other players, and sometimes bullies, meaning that they kept the ball to themselves. The volunteers received either a placebo or a nasal spray of oxytocin on one day and then swapped formulations a week later. That way, the researchers could observe how the same individual performed with and without the hormone boost.
The oxytocin made a difference. Without the hormone boost, volunteers tended to play equally with the good guy and the bully, indicating their difficulty in grasping important social concepts like fairness and empathy. With the hormone, they tended to avoid playing with the bully.
In a second experiment, the researchers asked the volunteers to look at a series of faces on a computer monitor. Like many with autism, the subjects tended to fixate on the chin and mouth and rapidly shifted their gaze, indicating agitation. But when given oxytocin, they began looking at the person's eyes, a sign of social ease, the team reports online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Anagnostou agrees that autism patients who take oxytocin and then play the game appear to be learning how to interact with people. "There is, in fact, some form of social learning that is happening," she says. But because this study only looked at the effect of oxytocin after a single dose, she adds, it's not clear if hormone boosters will continue working for the long term.
In terms of therapeutic applications, Sirigu says that studies have shown that addressing autism early can sometimes help curb the condition. So administering a hormone like oxytocin during childhood may be a powerful weapon in fighting autism, she says.
Anagnostou and her colleagues are currently administering oxytocin to Asperger's patients every day for 6 weeks. But even if her study yields similar results, she says, it will still take years for researchers and doctors to figure out potential side effects and proper dosage levels for the hormone.