‘Bonding’ hormone benefits children with autism

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A five week treatment with the synthetic hormone oxytocin significantly improved social, emotional and behavioural issues among young children with autism, according to University of Sydney research.

The study led by researchers at the university’s Brain and Mind Centre is thought to be the first evidence of a medical treatment for the social impairments in children with autism. It is also the first clinical trial investigating the efficacy, tolerability and safety of intranasal-administered oxytocin in young children with autism.

Autism is a group of complex brain developmental disorders characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and stereotypical and repetitive behaviours. The diagnosed incidence is estimate to be one in 68 children and effective interventions have remained limited. There is no medical treatment for these problems currently. Behavioural therapies can improve social, emotional and behavioural impairments but these are typically time consuming (40 hours per week), remain costly and show mixed outcomes.

In this new study, 31 children aged three to eight years of age received a twice daily course of oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray.

“We used some of the most widely used assessments of social responsiveness for children with autism,” said autism expert, Associate Professor Adam Guastella of the Brain and Mind Centre. “We found that, following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home and our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.”

Overall, the nasal spray was well tolerated and the most common adverse event events were thirst, urination and constipation.

This is the first time a medical treatment has shown this type of benefit for children with autism and findings represent outcomes from a longer sustained program of research by this team. Over the last 10 years Brain and Mind Centre researchers have been documenting the benefits of oxytocin in humans revealing that oxytocin enhances eye gaze, emotion recognition and memory across a range of populations.

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Study co-author and co-director the Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Ian Hickie noted the new results were a critical first advance in the development of medical treatments for the social deficits that characterize autism. The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioural, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting,” he said.

Most recently the team has linked observed changes from treatment also to brain changes associated with social circuitry. The next phase of this research is to understand exactly how oxytocin changes brain circuitry to improve social behavior and document how related treatments might be used to boost learning of established social learning interventions. We are seeking to further develop the potential of oxytocin-based interventions within the context of good multi-disciplinary care for autism. 

The research was largely supported by private foundations and partially funded by NHMRC grants and a BUPA Health Foundation grant.

(Source: The University of Sydney)

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Date Created: November 5, 2015