(Reuters Health) - In an early study, inhaling the hormone oxytocin appeared to encourage men with autism to make more eye contact.
But this was a small experiment with several limitations and does not mean oxytocin should immediately become a therapy for autism, experts cautioned.
Oxytocin has been touted as the “love hormone” and the “moral molecule” in the past. Naturally released during intercourse and breastfeeding, it seems to at least make people more social, if not actually more loving.
For the new study, researchers from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the UK and other European institutions compared 32 men with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Asperger Syndrome and another 34 men without those disorders but of similar age and IQ.
Individually, the men video-chatted with a female researcher twice. Before one interview, participants inhaled oxytocin. Before the other, they inhaled a placebo spray.
The video-chat software included eye tracking, which recorded how often the subject focused on the eyes, mouth or other face areas during the interviews.
The female interviewer asked the men how they were doing, how the nasal spray made them feel, how they liked or didn’t like being in the study and similar questions for about five minutes.
With placebo, men with autism focused on the interviewer’s eyes less often and for less time than men without autism.
With oxytocin, the number of times men with autism looked at the interviewer’s eyes rose from an average of 0.59 per second to more than 0.7 per second. For men without autism, glances at the eyes rose from 0.83 to almost 0.9 per second, the authors reported in Translational Psychiatry.
Dr. Lawrence Scahill, director of clinical trials at the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved in the new research, told Reuters Health by email, “This is a step forward, but we should be careful not to over-interpret the results. As noted by the authors, findings with (oxytocin) in ASD have been inconsistent.”
Video interviews are not natural interaction, he noted, and the study participants with autism were “high functioning,” having been medication-free for at least a year.
The findings do add to mounting evidence that oxytocin enhances attention to the eyes, said Tobias Grossman, a developmental psychologist specializing in the brain processes underpinning social interaction at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“However, it is unclear whether increased looking to the eyes actually improves social functioning,” Grossman, who was also not involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
Prior work with children with autism shows that oxytocin increases brain function in regions involved in social processing but doesn’t affect performance of other tasks, he said.
In other words, oxytocin may increase glances at eyes, and also brain response to eyes, but without affecting behavior when responding to eye cues, Grossman said.
Reduced eye contact is one of the earliest warning signs in young children with autism and might be evident as soon as two to six months of age, he said. Much of what happens for these infants developmentally, and how much oxytocin may be involved, remains unknown.
Grossman and Scahill agree that the new findings are not evidence that oxytocin should be used as a therapy for children with autism.
SOURCE: bit.ly/198lLql Translational Psychiatry, online February 10, 2015.