60-Second Science

Oxytocin May Alleviate Some Autism

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences followed a small group of high-functioning people with autism and found that they responded more to social cues when given the hormone oxytocin. Karen Hopkin reports

Some call it the “hormone of love.” It’s oxytocin and it helps moms bond with and breast-feed their babies, and even keeps romantic couples content. Now a study suggests that this same hormone might also help people with autism—by improving their social awareness. The work is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People with autism or with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s syndrome have difficulty engaging in social situations. They rarely initiate social encounters, and often have trouble even meeting someone’s eye. They also have low levels of oxytocin. Now, given this hormone’s reputation as a cuddle-inducing chemical, scientists got to wondering whether people with autism might benefit by taking it.

To find out, the researchers [led by Angela Sirigu of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon, France] gave oxytocin to 13 patients with high-functioning autism and then monitored their attentiveness to social cues. They found that the subjects on oxytocin were more likely to make eye contact when viewing pictures of faces, and they reported feeling connected to players who were nice to them in a virtual ball toss game. These results suggest that people with autism do have hidden social skills. They just need a little hormonal help expressing them.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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