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Oxytocin Hormone Can Help People With Autism


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Oxytocin, a hormone associated with emotional bonding between mothers and their babies and linked to romantic love, may help people with autism become more sociable and pay better attention to visual cues on other people's faces, claims a new study from France.

Oxytocin is a hormone known to promote delivery and lactation. It plays a significant role when it comes to enhancing social and emotional behavior. Previous research that focused on measuring the levels of oxytocin in the blood of patients showed that this hormone was deficient in people with autism. Autism is a disorder that is characterized by difficulties in communicating effectively with other individuals and developing social relationships.

A team of French researchers led by Angela Sirigu of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon (CNRS), has found that the nasal inhalation of oxytocin significantly improved the abilities of autistic patients to socialize with other people. To come to this conclusion, the experts administered oxytocin to 13 autistic patients with high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger syndrome (AS). In both these forms of the disorder, people retain normal intellectual and linguistic skills but experience difficulty to engage spontaneously in social situations. Therefore, during a conversation, these individuals usually turn their heads away and avoid eye contact with other people.

The participants in the study, eleven men and two women, did not take any medication two weeks prior to the experiments, which also included a control group of an equal number of healthy men and women. In the first experiment, in order to measure behavioral changes, the researchers observed autistic patients and those in a control group, who were not given the hormone, in a virtual game of tossing a ball. In the second experiment, the researchers measured the patients' ability to express emotional feelings when looking at pictures of human faces as well as their ability to recognize these faces.

The scientists found that those participants who were taking a placebo, looked at the mouth of the faces in the photographs or away from the photo. But after inhaling oxytocin, the patients demonstrated a higher level of attentiveness to visual cues when viewing human faces: they looked at the faces, and indeed it was even possible to see an increase in the number of times they looked specifically at the eyes of the faces in the photos. The participants who inhaled the hormone were also more likely to process social cues during the virtual ball passing game when compared to those in a control group in both experiments, the authors wrote.

During these experiments, the experts also verified patients' behavioral effects by measuring physiological plasma oxytocin levels before and after nasal inhalations. Before the inhalations, levels of plasma oxytocin were very low, but they rose after an inhalation of the hormone.

The results of this study have demonstrated that the intake of oxytocin hormone allowed patients with autism to adjust to their social context by identifying the differing behaviors displayed by people around them and then acted accordingly, expressing more trust towards the most socially cooperative people. Oxytocin was also found to decrease their fear of other individuals and promoted closer social relations.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 15, 2010.

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