Researchers in Australia have come up with a simple hormonal treatment for symptoms of autism, but will it work on a large scale?
Autism is a term used to describe a broad spectrum of different mental afflictions, but many people are hesitant to call it a disease. According to a report from Philly.com, however, a new nasal spray containing oxytocin, what researchers refer to as the “love hormone,” has been shown to help children diagnosed with autism improve social skills.
The study, carried out by Ian Hickie, the co-director of the Brain and Mind Center at the University of Sydney in Australia, and a team of researchers, showed that simple oxytocin treatments could enhance the “longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology-based therapies.”
Oxytocin is naturally occurring in the body, and doctors believe it is responsible for influencing a person’s emotional state, forming social ties like romantic interest in another and the bond felt between a child and a parent.
The study examined the effects of a nasal spray containing oxytocin on 31 children between the ages of 3 and 8 who had been diagnosed with autism. The treatment lasted for a five week period and was administered twice daily.
The scientists found that when kids got the nasal spray containing oxytocin, they showed significant improvements in handling their social, emotional, and behavioral setbacks compared to children who did not receive the spray. Side effects included thirst, urination, and constipation.
This is one of the first studies showing how a simple hormonal treatment could have a huge impact on improving behavioral and social skills in kids who have autism.
The scientists followed the improvements to social skills all the way back into the brain’s circuits to find out what was really going on. Next they will try to learn what effect oxytocin has on the brain’s wiring to see if they can identify what autism fundamentally changes inside of the brain.
According to Alycia Halladay, the chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, the new study greatly improves on previous oxytocin treatments that were administered by injection. A nasal spray is a much more feasible delivery method in young children. She reiterated that oxytocin is not a cure for autism, and should be used in conjunction with other treatments.
The effects of oxytocin on autism wore off when the nasal spray was replaced with a placebo, and researchers still aren’t sure if children will build up a tolerance to the hormone over time with repeated use. Researchers will continue to study the hormone’s effect on treating a number of symptoms related to autism, which may pave the way for larger clinical trials in the future.