Oxytocin: A New Treatment for Autism?
There are a few studies out there showing promise for helping our kids by utilizing the "Love Hormone", Oxytocin. Unfortunately, most of these studies are YEARS away from completion and in the mean time we as parents wonder, should we gamble and use the nasal spray or the drops now, not knowing the possible side effects or should we wait for the research, possibly too late for our kids.
Please keep in mind that since the FDA has not categorized Oxytocin as a "Food Supplement", most of the Oxytocin products you see out there for sale MIGHT be scams, not containing any real Oxytocin at all.
Fortunately, there are things you can do right now to naturally increase Oxytocin levels in your child, without worrying about any harmful side effects. While most of our kids are past the breastfeeding years, which naturally creates huge quantities of Oxytocin, certain things like cuddling and massages definitely helps to increase those hormone levels. Many of our kids have an aversion to regular hugs and closeness, but at the same time, they might be OK with a back rub or a foot massage. We usually give our son a massage of sorts putting lotion on him after an Epsom Salt bath, when putting him to bed. This kind of routine might be just what our kids need to raise those Oxytocin Levels, without resorting to trying an untested hormone on our kids.
Here's some interesting reading we've found on this subject:
News about autism is almost always controversial, but the latest report that has people abuzz—about researchers who have successfully treated some symptoms of the disorder using a nasal spray of oxytocin—shouldn't come as much of a shock. Scientists have been experimenting with oxytocin as an autism treatment for years. In the new study, conducted by French researchers, 13 subjects with "high-functioning autism" (a.k.a. Asperger syndrome) became more trusting and socially engaged under the hormone's influence. It's a small study, but it has big implications, and it tracks with findings from other researchers. Mary Carmichael spoke with one of those scientists, Eric Hollander, who is the director of the compulsive, impulsive, and autism spectrum disorders program at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Excerpts below, with our easier-to-understand translation:
What is the oxytocin spray actually doing in the brains of these patients?
Hollander: In patients with autism, the fusiform gyrus doesn't seem to light up in response to human faces. They light up an adjacent region called the inferior temporal gyrus, which normally gets lit up when people are looking at man-made objects. But we seem to get more recruitment of the fusiform gyrus when we administer oxytocin.
Do people with autism have abnormally low levels of oxytocin?
Hollander: It's challenging to measure the blood-plasma levels of oxytocin—it can be released in blips throughout the day, so it varies—but studies in children have found abnormalities in the plasma levels, and the subgroup of children with autism who are the most socially aloof tend to have the lowest levels of oxytocin. There are also studies in monkeys that have measured oxytocin levels in the spinal fluid as well as in the plasma. These studies show if you inhibit nurturing behaviors early in life, the spinal fluid and plasma levels of oxytocin are low, and they stay low throughout life.
Monkeys deprived of love have low oxytocin levels, and so do kids with autism? Doesn't that sound an awful lot like the discredited“refrigerator mother” hypothesis?
Hollander: In extreme cases of maternal deprivation, like children raised in orphanages without any early maternal behavior, there can be a long-lasting effect on oxytocin that's associated with social deficits. However, that probably is not the case with good or bad mothering. These are extreme cases of total lack of nurturing.
Some behavioral therapies seem to help people with autism, especially if they're delivered early in life. Is it possible that these therapies work by increasing oxytocin levels?
Hollander: Those therapies are really important—that's the whole point of diagnosing autism early, because the therapies can really improve the long-term developmental trajectory—but nobody has specifically measured oxytocin in response to them. I can tell you that there are things we know of that can enhance oxytocin levels. Deep pressure massage does it, and breast-feeding, and sexual intercourse. We also know that patients with autism tend to calm down by doing certain physical activities, like lying underneath a mattress or using Temple Grandin's squeeze machine."
This means: Nobody knows how behavioral therapies for autism affect oxytocin levels. We do know that in healthy people, affectionate physical contact increases oxytocin, which is a "calming" hormone. We also know that many people with autism find that being "squeezed" (albeit not by people) is calming.
The study looked at oxytocin's effect on social behaviors. You've also found it can affect other symptoms of autism, as well as other disorders. What are those effects?
Hollander: There is a group of behaviors that are self-stimulatory. When patients with autism are bored, they start to do things like hand-flapping or rocking back and forth to get up to their optimal level of stimulation. You actually see this in other species if you restrict input of sensory signals—if you put a tiger in a small cage, for instance, it will start to pace back and forth. With those types of behaviors, we saw a big decrease in response to the oxytocin. There are other, anxiety-related behaviors that seem to respond better to very low doses of SSRIs. We've also looked at patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD), who are exquisitely sensitive to social rejection. What we found was that when they got a single dose of the intranasal oxytocin in a situation where they had stress, like if they had to do a mathematical computation in front of other people who were evaluating them, there was a normalized cortisol response. But patients with BPD also have impairment in their social decision making, so in situations where they should be cooperating, they tend to defect, and in situations where it would make sense to defect, they try to cooperate. Paradoxically, the oxytocin made that abnormal decision making even worse. It's possible that the oxytocin was stimulating their vasopressin receptors.
How long do the effects of the oxytocin last?
Hollander: Even though it's staying in the plasma for a very brief period of time, we were getting effects in terms of enhanced social memories that seemed to persist two weeks later. Some of it is binding to central oxytocin receptors, and by stimulating those, it's allowing for the laying down of new social memories. Once those are laid down they seem to persist. So, we had people listen to neutral sentences, like "The boy went to the store," but we read those sentences with different tones—happy, sad, angry, or indifferent—and they had to recognize each tone. They developed an expertise in that. They were better at identifying the tones two weeks after the oxytocin was given. We don't know whether it's permanent.
What would happen if nonautistic people used an oxytocin spray?
Hollander: When you show people threatening faces, they have a marked activation of the amygdala. If you then give those people oxytocin, they don't get as much amygdala activation, so there's less of this fight-or-flight, threat, fear response. And normally, you'd get an elevation in blood pressure, clammy skin. You don't get as much of that either.
Do you worry that an oxytocin nasal spray would end up being abused by healthy people if the FDA approved it for treating autism?
Hollander: We're still far away from getting this approved in the U.S. for the treatment of autism. You'd need to do a large-scale trial, which hasn't been done yet. But the idea of people using this as a spray to enhance performance—I certainly wouldn't want to advocate that. I'm not sure it would be used in a recreational fashion. It has the potential for decreasing the sensation of social threat, and for enhancing social reward and reinforcement and facilitating trust, but I'm not sure it makes people feel euphoric or high. There are medicines that are on the market for the treatment of social anxiety disorder, and they don't seem to be abused in a recreational fashion. I don't see people who are a little shy going out and using SSRIs at parties. On the other hand, a lot of them do self-medicate with alcohol.