For children with autism, a dose of oxytocin -- the so-called "love hormone" -- seems to fine-tune the activity in brain areas linked to social interactions, according to a new study.
Although the hormone didn't change children's social skills in the study, its boosting effect on the brain's social areas suggests that using oxytocin nasal sprays immediately before behavioral therapies could boost the effects of those treatments, the researchers said.
"Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism," said study researcher Ilanit Gordon, a neuroscientist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. [11 Interesting Effects of Oxytocin]
The study involved 17 children and teens with autism spectrum disorders who underwent two sessions of brain imaging as they performed a task related to social behavior. In each session, the participants received either oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo, and were asked to judge the mental states of people based on a picture of their eyes.
The results showed that, compared with placebo sessions, when children received oxytocin they showed greater activity in the "social brain," which includes regions that process social information and are linked to reward, social perception and emotional awareness.
In contrast, oxytocin seemed to decrease the activity of the brain's social regions when children were engaged in a task that was not related to social processing, such as labeling the category of vehicles shown in pictures of cars.
In other words, the hormone seemed to help attune the brain to the difference between social and nonsocial stimuli, according to the study, published today (Dec. 2) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, Gordon said the findings do not mean that one dose of the hormone would treat social deficits in people with autism. "It means that there's a change in the brain that we read as positive and exciting, but we need to learn how to utilize it to create a change in real-life behavior," she said.