February 23, 2010

Hormone Could Treat Symptoms of Autism, Experts Say

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The effects of autism can span a wide range of conditions. Children who have autism may be bright and talented but still struggle with making friends and fitting in with their peers. In their desire to make friends they can become frustrated with the complicated social rules, which can in some instances lead to social isolation. There is so much in social interaction that is unspoken and not explicit, and many gifts that people with autism hold can go unnoticed.

Often kids with autism receive training in social skills and other behavioral education in order to overcome these social deficits. Recently a nasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin has caused excitement in the autism community, as articles extolled the potential benefits of this new treatment.

Oxytocin, a naturally appearing hormone, makes people more trusting and socially aware. For example, mothers experience greater maternal feelings towards their offspring, and children are more cooperative playmates because of oxytocin. Scientists have been studying whether giving people with autism an extra dose of oxytocin would diminish their social problems and make it easier for them to understand how to appropriately interact with others.

A recent study by French researchers at the National Center for Scientific Research found that some adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism who received the oxytocin spray showed improved abilities to recognize faces and play a game tossing a ball with others. According to some experts, these findings could lead to the first effective treatment of most common problems facing people with autism.

Prof. Matthew Belmonte, human development, cautions against overstating the significance of this one study. Belmonte is one of the foremost scientists looking for answers to the mystery of autism. His research involves seeking genetic and environmental factors in autistic spectrum conditions. He has utilized EEG and MRI studies to examine the brain physiology of people with autism spectrum conditions as well as their family members.

Although the study of the effects of the nasal spray containing oxytocin on adults with Asperger syndrome may indicate a potential treatment of symptoms of autism, according to Belmonte, “It is not a miracle cure.”

“This doesn’t alter the fact that the current drugs available for autism spectrum conditions don’t actually treat autism, but only the symptoms of autism,” Belmonte stated.

Belmonte remains optimistic that some day there will be drugs to treat the condition itself, but currently most interventions are centered on psycho-educational treatments. Oxytocin-based drugs could make the individual more accessible for psycho-educational interventions.

“Oxytocin affects pro-social behavior whether or not someone has autism,” Belmonte noted, pointing out studies of typical university students whose ability to engage in trust exercises increased with the hormone’s use. “Therefore, its effect on people with autism is interesting, but not a huge surprise.” He also noted that previous studies of oxytocin on individuals with autism have already yielded similar findings. Intravenous administration of oxytocin to autistic individuals in a 2007 study by Dr. Eric Hollander at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine resulted in a greater social awareness in the subjects.

The oxytocin nasal spray has been around for over a decade, with various experimental uses. One of the most common current uses of oxytocin in other forms is to speed contractions during pregnancy. Another use is to spur the production of breast milk. The hormone’s effects are short-lived and it leaves the body quickly, making it likely that drug companies will start to experiment with alternative substances to replace oxytocin that would have the same effects. As with any drug, side effects are potentially a concern.

Psychoeducational treatments focus especially on young children with autism in a attempt to reduce symptoms early on. Because the nasal spray study was conducted on adults, the impact of the hormone on young children remains unknown.

Original Author: Rachel Bensinger