What is love? Chemically speaking, it’s a hormone called oxytocin, which is at the center of a new findings that suggests the hormone that’s present when breastfeeding mothers bond with their babies can also help autistic people with social interactions.
The study, which is set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, looked at 13 individuals with high functioning autism, a complex neuro-developmental disorder defined in part by impaired social interaction. Those who inhaled oxytocin were more likely to respond to focus on pictures of human faces and interact with a character in a virtual ball tossing game.
While the scope of the study is obviously small, it is part of a burgeoning body of research that suggests the benefits of oxytocin. An Australian study found that 16 males who inhaled oxytocin were more likely to recognize facial expressions. Previous research has also suggested that some people with autism have lower levels of oxytocin and that those who received the study intravenously were less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors, according to the Washington Post.
Despite the buzz, I’m not holding my breath on conclusive evidence that the oxytocin hormone can produce sizable, lasting change in the social abilities of high-functioning autistics. First off, oxytocin doesn’t last long in the body and has trouble crossing from the blood into the brain (especially when using a nasal spray to inhale the hormone), according to Dr. George Anderson at Yale, as told to the British science writer Ed Yong. Moreover, the data is especially limited among children, according to Clara Lajonchere, of Autism Speaks.
While there are currently drugs available for the secondary symptoms of autism, such as repetitive behaviors, aggression, and irritability, there is not currently treatment in the areas of language and social interaction. Oxytocin would certainly represent a wonderful breakthrough, but the efficacy and the long term effects of exposure to oxytocin levels over a period of time are just a few of the many kinks that need to be worked out before it lives up to the hype.