Oxytocin Nasal Spray May Improve Social Function in Autism

Megan Brooks

June 01, 2012

June 1, 2012 (Toronto, Canada) — Preliminary results of a study of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show that a single dose of oxytocin administered by nasal spray increased activity in brain regions involved in processing of social information.

"Oxytocin is extensively implicated in social functioning in mammals and neurotypical adults, so it is a prime candidate for examination in regards to social deficits in autism," Dr. Ilanit Gordon, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow at the Yale Child Neuroscience Laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, told Medscape Medical News.

"The current results are very initial, but they are promising. They highlight the potential impact of oxytocin in devising new treatment strategies in the future for youth with ASD, perhaps combining validated clinical intervention with some form of oxytocin administration," said Dr. Gordon.

The study was presented here at the 11th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Toronto, Canada.

Targeting a Core Deficit

Social dysfunction is a core deficit in individuals with ASD. Dr. Gordon said that the current study was prompted by "recent discoveries regarding the association between prevalence of ASD and variations in the oxytocin receptor gene; a few small studies that show behavioral impact of nasal administration of oxytocin in individuals with ASD; and lower levels of plasma oxytocin in individuals with ASD."

To date, the study team has enrolled 40 children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 years with ASD in this double-blind, crossover, randomized controlled study. Participants receive oxytocin nasal spray or placebo spray on 2 consecutive visits, followed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

"After administration, we are testing participants' ability to detect biological motion and read others' emotions from the eye region using well-validated fMRI paradigms: Reading the Mind In the Eyes (RMET-R) and Biological Motion Detection," the investigators write.

The results suggest that intranasal administration of oxytocin results in enhanced activation of the superior temporal sulcus (STS) region during perception of biological motion compared with placebo.

fMRI shows increased functional brain activation with oxytocin (top) vs placebo (bottom). Source: Ilanit Gordon, PhD, Yale Child Neuroscience Laboratory, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

In addition, with regard to RMET-R, oxytocin seems to improve the ability of the children to accurately define and describe others' mental states as well as enhance brain activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, STS, temporal parietal junction, and fusiform. All of these regions are implicated in social perception and cognition, mentalizing, and theory of mind abilities, the authors say.

"When the study is finalized, we will be able to describe oxytocin's impact on both brain function and social behaviors," said Dr. Gordon.

Novel Imaging Data

Reached for comment, Angela Sirigu, PhD, of the Institute of Cognitive Science, Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive, Lyon, France, said the findings are "interesting since they confirm our previous results obtained on adult Asperger patients we published in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] in 2010, and they also show that therapeutic potential of oxytocin can also be extended to children."

As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, the PNAS study involved 13 adults and showed that those who inhaled oxytocin (compared with placebo) could better differentiate between players who interacted with them and those who did not in a virtual ball toss game. The study also showed that oxytocin enhanced total gaze time when looking at pictures of human faces, particularly in the eye region.

"The novelty (of the new study) concerns the fMRI results," Dr. Sirigu said.

Dr. Gordon said her team is still recruiting for the study. Clinicians who may have eligible patients (children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 years with high-functioning ASD) may contact the research team via this email: erin.macdonnell@yale.edu.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Sirigu have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

11th Annual International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). Abstract 164.008. Presented May 19, 2012.


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