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Study Suggests Oxytocin “Longterm Treatment” for Autism

February 19, 2013 Oxytocin and Autism, Research Articles No Comments

Oxytocin's Possible Use for Autism


Oxytocin, which is often referred to as the ‘love hormone,’ is a peptide that is used to help new mothers lactate, and is also credited as helping to form that unbreakable bond between mother and child. The hormone, which has been involved in the treatment of many health issues, has since catalyzed numerous scientific and psychological experiments to further investigate its many possible uses. Due to its bonding capabilities, oxytocin has been linked to social relationships and – excitingly – could have possibilities as a treatment for many forms of psychiatric or developmental disorders, including autism.

Around one in every 110 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Affecting the daily lives of millions of people across the world, scientists are yet to determine either the cure or the cause. Autism Spectrum Disorder can have mild to severe affects on development; therefore devising strategies to cope with them remains a major issue for the health industry, as well as for the families of those affected.

Pipeline studies

Last year, a pioneering research project was commissioned by the Research Council of Norway. The organization awarded around $2.1 million to a US-based pharmaceuticals company to study the effectiveness of oxytocin administration on treating symptoms of autism. Previously, there have been several small studies into the relationship between oxytocin and autism; however, so far, large-scale research has yet to be carried out. Early research has indicated that oxytocin has many benefits on aggressive and distressed behavior exhibited by those diagnosed with a condition on the Spectrum. It is hoped that the new study by the Research Council of Norway will lead to the development of a new treatment for the condition.

Personal stories

While the families of those affected by autism eagerly wait for the results of this potentially breakthrough study, it is clear by looking at smaller studies and listening to the personal stories of individuals that oxytocin could well be the beginnings of a new wonder treatment for autism. Last month, an article was published on the charity website, Autism Speaks. The feature told the story of Laurie and Eric Chern – a couple from Chicago who have a son diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. Avid supporters of research into autism, the couple had donated funds to a study testing the effects of nasal spray on autistic children. The couple believed that the hormone could “improve the social and communication skills of children on the autistic spectrum.”

Several families from North Carolina participated in the research. One of the parents, Barbara Marotto, described the challenges typically faced by parents of children with autism. Her son, Gabe, exhibited all the classic symptoms of autism from an early age; lack of eye contact, lack of speech and sounds, and extreme tantrums were just some of the traits she described. Feeling desperate to help their son communicate, the Marottos heard about the oxytocin trial being funded by the Cherns. The project, carried out by the North Carolina School of Medicine, used 25 children who had been diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum.

“This little boy came to life”

Over an eight-week period, the 25 children were randomly divided into two groups; one group received a dose of an oxytocin nasal spray, and the other was given a solution containing just salt water. Barbara Marotto’s son, Gabe, was one of those selected to receive the oxytocin solution, which was administered in the form of a nasal spray. Following her son’s treatment, she described the difference she saw in her son. “It was like this little boy came to life. He laughed and smiled a lot more, and he was very expressive,” she said. “I also noticed a big difference in the fluidity of his communication. He had always been able to talk, but it’s a struggle for him. With the oxytocin, that difficulty disappeared.”

In short, the entire group of children given the oxytocin spray in the Cherns’ experiment exhibited an improvement in social behaviors compared with those that took the placebo. At the end of the experiment, both groups were given oxytocin for a further six weeks so that everyone participating could experience the benefits. The parents were amazed with the difference they saw in their children; communication skills improved, the children became more engaged and – most importantly – they appeared to be a lot more content than they had been before the study. Dr. Sikich believes that these results indicate that oxytocin could be used as a long-term treatment for autism “to really improve things on a social perspective.” She also believes that improving social interaction goes hand-in-hand with enhanced learning and educational capabilities. “So much of how people learn is based on social interactions,” she said.

Positive impact

It is clear from Gabe’s experience that oxytocin appears to have had a positive impact on his behavior. Often, health care professionals claim that an autistic child’s tantrums are heavily related to a feeling of frustration, most probably as a result of not being able to communicate with or understand the people around them. “The ability to relate to other people, to communicate with them, is one of the things that make us most human,” said Dr. Linmarie Sikich, who led the original experiment. The medical profession was clearly impressed with the findings as, shortly after the eight week study, the Cherns received a $12.6 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) to conduct a larger study.

Oxytocin already linked to social behaviors

Dr. Sikich is just one of a long list of professionals that has noticed oxytocin’s capabilities, and its positive impact on the body could have promising implications for autism. Many previous studies on both animals and humans have shown that oxytocin promotes social behavior, resulting in an increased awareness. A study by the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Bowman Gray School of Medicine of Wake Forest University and the University of Sao Paulo, found that oxytocin naturally released into the blood also helped the human body to combat the effects of stress. Another study, entitled “The Herding Hormone; Oxytocin Stimulates In-Group Conformity,” found that oxytocin also helped people interact in groups and think collectively – something that those with autism often find difficult.

Nasal spray products

The larger study, named SOARS-B  (Study of Oxytocin in Autism to improve Reciprocal Social Behaviors), is scheduled to start this year and will take place over a six-month period. Again, the participants will be split into two groups – one that will be given oxytocin via a nasal spray, and the other that will be given a placebo. At the end of the six months, both groups will receive oxytocin treatment for a further six months.

However, while eager parents wait for the study’s results, oxytocin is already available to purchase. Due to the numerous studies supporting the benefits of oxytocin supplementation, there is now a range of products available on the market. Oxytocin Factor is a supplement that is administered in the form of a nasal spray or sublingual drops – and has been clinically proven as a product of the highest quality. Manufactured in an FDA-approved laboratory, the spray is designed to be used by a range of individuals with a variety of common health problems, as well as those who just want an enhanced quality of life. Designed to relieve the everyday stresses of life, Oxytocin Factor is rigorously tested to ensure positive wellbeing for those who take it. It is clinically proven to reduce the symptoms associated with autism, including tantrums, frustrations and paranoid behavior.

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