A single dose of the hormone oxytocin, delivered via nasal spray, can enhance brain function in children with autism, scientists have found.
Researchers from Yale School of Medicine found that oxytocin enhances brain activity while processing social information in children with autism spectrum disorders.
"This is the first study to evaluate the impact of oxytocin on brain function in children with autism spectrum disorders," said first author Ilanit Gordon, a Yale Child Study Center adjunct assistant professor.
Researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 17 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.
The participants, between the ages of 8 and 16.5, were randomly given either oxytocin spray or a placebo nasal spray during a task involving social judgements.
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the brain and throughout the body.
"We found that brain centres associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo," said Gordon.
"Oxytocin temporarily normalised brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism," Gordon said.
Gordon said oxytocin facilitated social attunement, a process that makes the brain regions involved in social behaviour and social cognition activate more for social stimuli (such as faces) and activate less for non-social stimuli (such as cars).
"Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders," Gordon added.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.