mother-infant bonding, trust

Oxytocin Shows Promise in Helping Asperger’s Patients

February 18, 2010 12:50 PM
by Colleen Brondou
A new study found that the hormone oxytocin, which fosters mother-infant bonding and trust, helped people with Asperger’s syndrome improve their social learning skills.

Inhaling Oxytocin for Better Social Interaction

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 13 Asperger’s patients and a control group were shown photos of human faces. Melissa Healy, writing for the Los Angeles Times, explains that Asperger’s patients normally avert their eyes from human faces, especially the eyes. 

“For 90 minutes after inhaling oxytocin, those subjects were more willing to study faces, including the eyes,” Healy writes. The subjects were also better at reading social cues in a computerized game; Asperger’s patients “would usually not pick up” on such cues.

Angela Sirigu, coauthor of the study, said that the effect of oxytocin in the test was significant because it inspired subjects to “learn from others’ feedback,” according to Healy.

Background: Previous studies with oxytocin

In 2008, researchers at Zurich University found that a nasal spray form of oxytocin reduced activity in the amygdala region of the brain. Research subjects taking oxytocin showed unexpected levels of trust in strangers. This apparent rise in the level of trust is encouraging for patients with social phobias, who are often prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac, in conjunction with psychotherapy or on their own.

A 2003 study looked at a possible connection between oxytocin and the symptoms of autism and Asperger’s syndrome, specifically repetitive behavior, and found improved behavior using synthetic oxytocin versus a placebo.

The February 2008 issue of the journal Monitor on Psychology reported on a Mount Sinai School of Medicine study in which researchers injected oxytocin into adults with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Those who received the injection were better able to identify emotional content on a speech comprehension test than those that received a placebo.

“These findings suggest that oxytocin might facilitate social information processing in those with autism, and provide preliminary support for the use of oxytocin in the treatment of autism,” the authors wrote, according to the journal.

Related Topic: Redefining what is normal

Although more adults have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in recent years, some experts, as well as those who have the autism spectrum disorder, contend that a cure is not necessary. Rather, acceptance of different personality traits is in order, they claim.

Reference: Asperger’s syndrome

Mayo Clinic defines Asperger’s syndrome as “a developmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.” Visit the site to learn more about Asperger’s symptoms, causes, tests and diagnosis, and treatments.

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