Oxytocin may help improve social behavior in people with autism, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There's a lot this study can't tell us; researchers studied just 13 young adults with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, and it tested their social responses only in the laboratory, with a ball-tossing game and a measurement of how responsive they were to social cues in pictures of human faces.
Still, there's also a lot to get excited about. Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus that helps stimulate childbirth and breast-feeding. It's also sometimes called the "hormone of love" because it's thought to help regulate emotions. Some studies have found that children with autism have lower levels of oxytocin in their bodies. And other small studies of oxytocin's use in autistics have found that the hormone reduces repetitive behaviors and helps improve the ability to recognize emotions in voices and faces.
The lead researcher in the PNAS study, Angel Sirigu of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, told the Washington Post that oxytocin given early in childhood might theoretically prevent the social deficits that make life difficult for many people with autism.
That's just speculation, of course, and this very small study can't be considered more than preliminary research. But it's informed speculation. Despite its shortcomings, the study is exactly the kind of research into untested, alternative autism treatments that is desperately needed so that parents can make informed choices and so that children can get treatment that may actually do them some good. The study was a controlled clinical trial, with oxytocin also given to 13 young adults who didn't have autism and Asperger's. The level of oxytocin in the subjects' blood was measured so that the results weren't based merely on observations of their behavior—which can easily be biased.
That scientific rigor stands in stark contrast to the infamous study of autism and MMR vaccine conducted by Andrew Wakefield. It was retracted by the Lancet, the noted British medical journal, two weeks ago after Britain's General Medical Council said that Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in conducting his research. The participants weren't randomly chosen, and there was no control group, making it useless as an investigation of potential causes of autism.
Scientists are researching other potential treatments for autism, including methyl B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and the Alzheimer's drug Namenda. These may not pan out, and oxytocin may well prove a disappointment, too. But we won't know until they are rigorously tested. Some parents are already trying oxytocin for their kids, although its safety and efficacy hasn't been tested in children. Let's hope that soon parents won't have to make those sorts of hopeful gambles and that dozens of potential treatments will be getting the kind of reasoned scrutiny currently underway for oxytocin.