By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 30 March 2012)
Often referred to as “the love hormone,” oxytocin plays a key role in both repetitive and social behaviours (in particular, social attachment and social understanding). Those with autistic spectrum disorders have peptide system abnormalities, with the oxytocin system particularly likely to be affected (Duke University Medical Center, 2009; Hollander et al., 2003).
Children with autism have lower oxytocin levels, and these levels don’t increase over the course of their development the way they do in neurotypical (non-autistic) children (Modahl et al., 1998, cited in Hollander et al., 2003). This may be one of the reasons why their brains respond to faces as though they were inanimate objects rather than sources of socially relevant information; notably, “children with autism who are the most socially aloof tend to have the lowest levels of oxytocin” (Hollander, cited in Carmichael, 26 February 2010).
Oxytocin as an Autism Treatment: Research Findings
Hollander et al. (2003) conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oxytocin for treating repetitive behaviours in adults with Asperger’s syndrome (a relatively high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder) and autism. They found that oxytocin significantly reduced the following compulsions:
- Needing to know/tell/ask
Andari et al. (2010) conducted a small-scale study with 13 Asperger’s syndrome subjects, finding that inhaled oxytocin enhanced trust and social interactions and increased the time that subjects looked into the eyes of others.
Other studies have found increased ability to read emotion in faces (Guastella et al., 2010), better ability to interpret tones of voice, and reduced fight-or-flight fear reactions in response to threatening faces (Hollander, cited in Carmichael, 26 February 2010) after oxytocin administration.
Although there is a growing body of research indicating that oxytocin may provide social benefits for some of those with autistic spectrum disorders, it is not yet known how effective supplementation is likely to be, or if there are any risks involved with its use. Therefore, more research is required before oxytocin can be recommended for widespread clinical use. However, there are natural ways to increase oxytocin. For example, deep pressure massage, a therapy that has proven beneficial for many people with autistic spectrum disorders, increases oxytocin levels (Hollander, cited in Carmichael, 26 February 2010). Nilsson (2009) also found that listening to relaxing music after heart surgery increased oxytocin levels (subjects in the non-music control group suffered a drop in oxytocin). See Music Therapy for Autistic Spectrum Disorders for more on the benefits of music therapy.
Other Autism Supplements
For more on the effectiveness of other supplements for treating autistic spectrum disorders, see the main Autism Supplements page. For a full list of articles on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, visit the main Autistic Spectrum Disorders page.
Always consult a qualified medical practitioner before taking supplements or giving them to your child. Many supplements are toxic at certain doses and may interact with some medications or create problems for people with certain medical conditions.
This article is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation or care. Health concerns should be referred to a doctor.
- Andari, E.; Duhamel, J.; Zalla, T.; Herbrecht, E.; Leboyer, M.; & Sirigu, A. (2010). Promoting Social Behavior with Oxytocin in High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Carmichael, M. (2010). “The ‘Bonding Hormone’ That Might Cure Autism.” TheDailyBeast.com.
- Duke University Medical Center (2009). “Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation.” ScienceDaily.com.
- Guastella, A.J.; Einfeld, S.L.; Gray, K.M.; Rinehart, N.J.; Tonge, B.J.; Lambert, T.J.; & Hickie, I.B. (2010). “Intranasal Oxytocin Improves Emotion Recognition for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Biological Psychiatry, 67(7), pp. 692-694.
- Hollander, E.; Novotny, S.; Hanratty, M.; Yaffe, R.; DeCaria, C.; Aronowitz, B.R.; & Mosovich, S. (2003). “Oxytocin Infusion Reduces Repetitive Behaviors in Adults with Autistic and Asperger’s Disorders.” Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(1), pp. 193–198.
- Kuehn, B.M. (2011). “Scientists Probe Oxytocin Therapy for Social Deficits in Autism, Schizophrenia.” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 305(7), pp. 659-661.
- Nilsson, U. (2009). “Soothing Music Can Increase Oxytocin Levels During Bed Rest After Open-Heart Surgery: A Randomised Control Trial.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(15), pp. 2,153-2,161.
- Research Autism. (2011). “Oxytocin and Autism.” ResearchAutism.net.