A single dose of the hormone oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, has been shown to enhance brain activity while processing social information in children with autism spectrum disorders, Yale School of Medicine researchers report in a new study published in the Dec. 2 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the first study to evaluate the impact of oxytocin on brain function in children with autism spectrum disorders,” said first author Ilanit Gordon, a Yale Child Study Center adjunct assistant professor, whose colleagues on the study included senior author Kevin Pelphrey, the Harris Professor in the Child Study Center, and director of the Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience at Yale.

Gordon, Pelphrey, and their colleagues conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 17 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. The participants, between the ages of 8 and 16.5, were randomly given either oxytocin spray or a placebo nasal spray during a task involving social judgments. Oxytocin is naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain and throughout the body.

These brain scans shows the impact of oxytocin.

In both panels, the orange map indicates regions where activity was greater during Eyes vs. Vehicles judgments and the blue map indicates the reverse (P < 0.05, corrected; K ≥ 729 mm3 ). (Upper) OT visits are depicted. (Lower) Placebo visits are depicted. Credit Gordon et al/Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo,” said Gordon. “Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism.”

Gordon said oxytocin facilitated social attunement, a process that makes the brain regions involved in social behavior and social cognition activate more for social stimuli (such as faces) and activate less for non-social stimuli (such as cars).

“Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders,” Gordon added.

Notes about this autism research

Other authors on the study include Brent C. Vander Wyk, Randi H. Bennett, Cara Cordeaux Zagoory-Sharon, James F. Leckman, and Ruth Feldman.

The study was funded by a Harris Family Professorship to Pelphrey; a Lee Foundation Postdoctoral Award to Gordon; and a grant from the Binational Science Foundation to Feldman, Pelphrey, Gordon, and Leckman.

Contact: Karen N. Peart – Yale University
Source: Yale University press release
Image Source: The image and caption are credited to Gordon et al/Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences and is adapted from the open access research paper cited below.
Original Research Full open access research for “Oxytocin enhances brain function in children with autism” by Ilanit Gordon, Brent C. Vander Wyk, Randi H. Bennett, Cara Cordeaux, Molly V. Lucas, Jeffrey A. Eilbott, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, James F. Leckman, Ruth Feldman, and Kevin A. Pelphrey in PNAS. Published online December 2 2013 doi:10.1073/pnas.1312857110

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