When we engage in intimate social interactions, the “trust hormone” oxytocin likely plays a role—it is vital to building normal relationships. Even a synthetic version has been shown to boost feelings of security. Now increasing evidence suggests that oxytocin could also correct some of the interpersonal deficiencies experienced by those who have autism.
In a study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 13 high-functioning adults with autism played a computerized ball-tossing game with three fictitious characters. Some of the computer-controlled players behaved less cooperatively than others, and to succeed at the game, subjects needed to identify them and avoid passing them the ball. When given a placebo, those with autism could not differentiate among playmates. After the patients received oxytocin, however, their performance resembled that of people without autism—they favored the more cooperative players.
“Not only can people with autism socialize more under the effect of oxytocin, they can understand the behaviors of others and respond accordingly,” explains study co-author Angela Sirigu, director of research at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in Bron, France.
Previous studies have found that oxytocin enhances autistic adults’ ability to comprehend emotions in speech and tamps down repetitive behaviors, another common symptom of the disorder. The compound also helps autistic children better discern people’s intentions by reading their eyes.
Although these studies are only proofs of principle—many more trials must happen before a drug could be approved—they suggest that oxytocin, if delivered soon after a diagnosis of autism, could help sway early social interactions in favor of more normal development. “We don’t have a lot of medications for the core symptoms of autism—arguably we have none,” says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “So if this has any impact, you want to try it.”