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Oxytocin and Autism: Exploring the ‘Love Drug’


On a bad day, many of us turn to activities that elevate our mood and offer relief, whether it be exercising, cycling, watching movies, eating, cuddling, listening to music or just a simple cup of coffee. These feel-good exercises trigger oxytocin release. Often this is referred to as a “love hormone” or “love drug”. 

Oxytocin and Autism: Exploring the ‘Love Drug’

Oxytocin plays several roles in the human body. For example, in women, it stimulates the contraction of the uterus during childbirth, as well as lactation. Oxytocin also plays a role in social functions by impacting bonding behavior during social interactions.

Oxytocin is a subject of interest in relation to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because of this influence in social behaviors. Hence, this article looks at whether oxytocin can help people on the spectrum with social difficulties and repetitive behavior. Does oxytocin treatment help alleviate autism symptoms? Let’s take a look. 

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland that affects our body and our brain. Many describe oxytocin as a “love drug” mainly because, when produced, it creates a sense of well-being such as calmness, relaxation, and alleviating anxiety.

In the case of anxiety, oxytocin can act as a buffer to social stress. This is because oxytocin reduces our anxiety levels and reactivity to stressors. This can in turn help alleviate repetitive behaviors, and play a role in social recognition, memory, and attachment. 

Oxytocin and autism

Children or individuals with autism sometimes experience a lot of anxiety and stress in social situations; this includes social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.

In autistic individuals, it’s been shown that plasma oxytocin levels can be low and there can be defects in oxytocin processing. Scientists have gained interest in the use of oxytocin as a medical treatment for people on the spectrum, with the hope it will help regulate social communication and repetitive behavior. 

It’s also shown that low oxytocin levels lead to social impairments regardless of whether the individual has ASD or not. So the research question scientists seek to answer is: can oxytocin help autistic children whose oxytocin levels are already low? 

What does research say about oxytocin and autism?

Some clinical trials have reported on whether administering intranasal (oxytocin nasal spray) and intravenous (administered inside the vein) oxytocin has an effect against a placebo drug. Intravenous administration of oxytocin was shown to help improve social learning and reduce repetitive behaviors in autistic individuals. 

Similarly, intranasal oxytocin is said to promote trust and prosocial behavior. This is supported by a study from Anagnostou, et al. (2012). The study found that, after six-weeks of administering intranasal oxytocin, it improved social cognition, reduced repetitive behaviors, and aided the emotional well-being in some of its participants, but not all. In reference to repetitive behaviors, intranasal oxytocin did not influence higher-order behaviors such as compulsive-like behaviors but did impact lower order behaviors such as stimming or self-stimulatory behavior. This finding is perhaps because stimming is a self-pleasuring act or habit; therefore, it’s possible that oxytocin replaces that act due to its feel-good effect.


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Kirsch, et al. (2005) conducted a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine the effect in the amygdala of autistic participants receiving intranasal oxytocin and compared it to those in the placebo group. The study looked at participants’ responses to fear-inducing stimuli as well as social i.e. angry and fearful faces and non-social i.e. threatening scenes or scenarios. Those in the test group (receiving the intranasal oxytocin treatment) showed reduced activation of the amygdala to social stimuli in comparison to non-social stimuli. 

The amygdala found in our temporal lobe plays a role in our processing of memory, decision making, and (for the purposes of the above mentioned study) emotional responses such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Does lack of oxytocin cause autism?

The simple answer to this question is “no”. Although the link between the two is that individuals with ASD experience difficulties in social situations that can be anxiety-triggering, and oxytocin plays a role in developing social skills. The lack of social skills in some autistic individual, does not necessarily mean that lack of oxytocin is a cause.

However, in both autistic and non-autistic individuals, lack of oxytocin in the brain leads to increased anxiety and fear. Due to the social difficulties of autistic individuals, oxytocin has become a subject of interest as a possible treatment option to improve autism symptoms.

Is oxytocin effective in treating autism symptoms?

The response to treatment with oxytocin has been mixed. While some studies indicate an improvement in speech comprehension, facial emotion recognition, and social decision making among adult subjects, findings among younger study participants have shown limited results.

From the studies that have found improvement, parents of children with ASD between the ages of six to 12 years of age have stated that intranasal oxytocin treatment helped social responsiveness. It seems that improvements in autism symptoms are only evident when the treatment is administered repeatedly over an extended period of time. It becomes challenging to know which duration for administration is suitable because studies that have shown an impact vary in trial durations between four and six weeks. 

Although some research studies have documented the positive impact of using oxytocin as a treatment for autism symptoms, some studies are still skeptical. There’s still a substantial gap in literature to positively assert that oxytocin can be used as a treatment, whether administered intranasally or intravenously. 

As proof of this ongoing research, a study protocol by Kong et al.(2020) has introduced a pilot randomized controlled trial to determine whether an oral supplementation of a probiotic called L. reuteri and intranasal oxytocin spray against a placebo affects social and behavioral functions in ASD patients. 

In summary

It is difficult to say with certainty that oxytocin can be used as a treatment for autism symptoms. More research needs to be conducted to determine its efficacy. 

From the research showing positive results to oxytocin administration, it appears oxytocin has a central impact in improving social interaction, cognition, and other social aspects seen to be a challenge for autistic individuals. However, it is difficult to determine how much of it is enough to cause a lasting effect. 

Regardless, parents of autistic children have the upper hand in determining which treatment is best for their child. It is important to consult with your child’s doctor to determine which form of medical treatment is safe for your loved one. 

References

Anagnostou, E., Soorya, L., Chaplin, W. et al. (2012) Intranasal oxytocin versus placebo in the treatment of adults with autism spectrum disorders: a randomized controlled trial. Molecular Autism, 3, 16, https://0-doi-org.innopac.wits.ac.za/10.1186/2040-2392-3-16 

Bernaerts, S., Boets, B., Bosmans, G. et al. (2020) Behavioral effects of multiple-dose oxytocin treatment in autism: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial with long-term follow-up. Molecular Autism 11, 6, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-0313-1 .

Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C., Chen, Q., Mier, D., Lis, S., Siddhanti, S., Gruppe, H., Mattay, V. S., Gallhofer, B., & Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2005). Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 25(49), 11489–11493. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3984-05.2005 

Kong, XJ., Liu, J., Li, J. et al. (2020) Probiotics and oxytocin nasal spray as neuro-social-behavioral interventions for patients with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot randomized controlled trial protocol. Pilot Feasibility Studies, 6, 20 . https://0-doi-org.innopac.wits.ac.za/10.1186/s40814-020-0557-8 

Yamasue, H., & Domes, G. (2018). Oxytocin and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, 35, 449–465. https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2017_24

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