Humans are social organisms by nature. Our lives revolve around living with family, bonding with loved ones, completing tasks at work and school, and interacting with strangers. We must recall folks we meet daily, create trust, cooperate, and connect with them in positive ways as part of our day-to-day functioning in all of these circumstances. However, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suffer considerable difficulty in these areas, preventing them from developing meaningful relationships with family members and obtaining high achievements in education and career later in life.
Researchers have discovered that the hormone oxytocin plays a function in many elements of social awareness1,2,3 and have been looking at whether it could help children with autism4,5,6,7,8,9.
Parents of autistic children who have participated in oxytocin clinical studies report that it has improved their children’s communication and social skills3.
Dr. Sue Carter, a psychiatry professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, notes that it is understandable that family members may contemplate utilizing oxytocin supplements to help them bond with their autistic loved ones.
“Because other medications have failed to treat social and communicative problems in autism, oxytocin appears to be an appealing choice because it has the potential to improve social interaction,” she says.
However, Dr. Carter and other researchers warn that oxytocin has not been extensively examined and that giving it to youngsters may be a step too far, too soon.
WHAT EXACTLY IS OXYTOCIN?
Oxytocin is involved in a variety of facets of social functioning. Children and adults with ASD, for example, spend less time looking into others’ eyes. Still, after receiving extra oxytocin as part of a study, their time spent looking into others’ eyes increased4,10,11,12.
“This did not make you socially savvy, but people who were given oxytocin got more socially tuned in,” Dr. Carter adds.
The hormone also aids in determining which emotions others are experiencing based on their facial expressions and tone of speech. It encourages social learning. That is, it aids in the recall of names, faces, and conversations13,4,5. It also affects an individual’s emotional and behavioral response to stress and enhances cooperation by improving trust7,4.
LEVELS OF OXYTOCIN IN AUTISM
Because of these links, researchers have started looking at the relationship between oxytocin and sociability in autistic people.
The first investigation to discover a relationship between the two was conducted in 1998. It found that autistic children have lower oxytocin levels than ordinarily developing children. It also revealed that adolescents without ASD exhibited an increase in oxytocin before the onset of puberty, whereas those on the spectrum did not15.
The findings of more recent investigations differ significantly. A study conducted in the Netherlands discovered that persons with ASD had higher oxytocin levels than healthy participants16. Another study found decreased oxytocin levels in children with autism, but more significant amounts of the hormone’s variation that the body converts oxytocin to17.
DO SOCIAL INTERACTIONS GET BETTER WITH OXYTOCIN?
Researchers have not discovered consistent gains in all facets of sociability in individuals with ASD, in addition to not having definite answers about the oxytocin levels seen in individuals with ASD.
Many oxytocin and autism investigations were ‘case studies,’ in which the researcher carefully examined the effect of the medication on one person8. Other research only enrolled a small number of persons. 4,5,8,9. Due to the small size of this research, it isn’t easy to draw any conclusions. Calculations based on a small number of observations can be deceptive and may not accurately depict the situation. Furthermore, each study looked for gains in only one social awareness component, such as the capacity to deduce emotions from facial expressions, but did not find any in other areas, such as collaboration and trust. 4,5,8,9. A substantial number of investigations on people who did not have ASD found that oxytocin had favorable benefits. 14,6,11,12. Some discovered that oxytocin harmed social behavior; oxytocin enhanced envy, mistrust, and discrimination against people thought to be different18.
According to one French study, oxytocin produced the expected impact in some people, had a modest effect in others, and had no impact in others4.
These data imply that, in most situations, the hormone’s influence depended on the problem and the individuals19. Early social experiences may also influence how the hormone works21, increasing concern in administering the hormone to children.
SYNTHETIC OXYTOCIN OR PITOCIN
Aside from social functioning, oxytocin is involved in several aspects of reproduction, including the induction of labor in pregnant women20. Physicians utilize synthetic oxytocin, marketed as Pitocin, to induce labor in women who cannot go into labor on their own or who have delays.
Concerns have been raised over whether administering the hormone to pregnant mothers externally causes autism in their children21. However, research investigations have debunked the link, demonstrating no difference in the rate at which Pitocin was used to induce labor in children with autism vs. generally developing children22,23.
However, a North Carolina study involving over 625,000 people discovered that pregnant women who were given exogenous oxytocin to induce and augment labor had children who were later diagnosed with ASD, but it is still unclear if this caused autism. The study did not investigate a possible link between an autism diagnosis and other factors such as the mother’s exposure to the medication before or during pregnancy, any harm to the newborn’s neurological system shortly after delivery, or the father’s age24.
OXYTOCIN’S POSSIBLE LONG-TERM EFFECTS
Oxytocin, on the other hand, has the ability to influence sexual behavior.
Dr. Karen Bales, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, has been researching oxytocin’s long-term impact on social and sexual behavior in animals. Her study has discovered that males and females react differently to the hormone and that the response to different oxytocin levels differs from person to person25,26.
Researchers caution that boosting a hormone can have far-reaching repercussions as a result of this and other investigations. Hormones, in addition to their primary tasks, have the ability to travel to various regions of the body. According to Dr. Bales, oxytocin is found in the heart, brain, kidneys, and any place there is smooth muscle. She notes that adding oxytocin could also impact the function of these organs.
“Oxytocin has many health benefits and is a component of the immune system, but it is also a very delicate mechanism,” explains Dr. Carter. “So going in and interrupting it with a chemical without knowing the repercussions might be harmful.”