Previous studies had found lower blood levels of the hormone in children with autism than in typically developing children, and it had been suggested that oxytocin treatments could help children with autism overcome their difficulties with social interactions.
However, studies that examined the behavioral effects of administrating oxytocin yielded negative or weak results. In those studies, researchers gave the hormone to adults and children with autism for days and weeks, and found only modest improvements, or no change at all, in participants' social behavior.
Similarly, in the new study, when children received oxytocin, they didn't perform any better in identifying mental states based on their assessment of a person's eyes. But the greater activity in the brain's social regions after they received the hormone suggests that it may improve the effectiveness of behavioral treatments.
"There's a window where the brain increases its efficiency in processing, and we can utilize that window to teach kids on the autism spectrum in behavioral treatment," Gordon told LiveScience.
It remains unclear how the hormone affects the brain and leads to better social processing. One possibility is that oxytocin makes social stimuli more rewarding to children with autism, the researchers said. It is also possible that the hormone makes the information pertaining to humans stand out from the background information consisting of objects and, in turn, helps social information to become salient to people with autism, the researchers said.
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