‘Cuddle chemical’ helps autistics recognise emotions

A hormone associated with bonding between lovers, or mothers and their children, has been found to help improve the recognition of emotions when given to adults with autism. Becky McCall reports.

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OXFORD, U.K.: A hormone more commonly associated with bonding between lovers, or mothers and their children, has been found to help improve and maintain the recognition of emotions when given to adults with autism.

Oxytocin is an important hormone in the development of trust bonds and is well known for its role as a pregnancy hormone, promoting contractions and aiding breastfeeding.

“We wondered if rescuing the oxytocin system was a key to improving core symptoms of autism,” said psychiatrist and lead researcher Eric Hollander of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, USA.

Socialisation problems

Autistics typically suffer from problems interacting socially, including: difficulties with making eye contact, empathy and reading emotion. They also have low levels of attention and suffer from mood swings and hyperactivity.

In a series of studies, researchers led by Hollander, gave either high-functioning adult patients with either autism, or Asperger’s syndrome, injections of oxytocin or a placebo. A subsequent part of the trial used a nasal spray instead of an injection.

Participants were then asked to listen to a recording of the sentence: ‘the boy went to the store”, which was expressed in different emotional tones including ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and ‘indifferent’.

The researchers found a marked improvement in recognition of emotion and a decrease in severity of repetitive behaviour, hand flapping, and the repetition of words said by another person – all symptoms of autism.

First good treatment approach

Most notably the study found that the participants who took oxytocin were better able to interpret facial expressions and had more memories of people’s emotional states. The results were presented today at a British Association of Psychopharmacology meeting, held in Oxford, England.

“With practice, we found improvement in expertise in terms of recognising the emotional tone of spoken language both with intravenous oxytocin and intravenous placebo,” said Hollander.

“The most surprising thing was that two weeks later when the same participants returned for a second infusion, those who had originally received oxytocin had laid down new social memories which had persisted for two weeks.”

Even after a single infusion two weeks earlier, they remained experts in the ability to recognise emotions in spoken neutral sentences whereas those who had received placebo were no longer experts, said Hollander.

Hollander explained that oxytocin promises to have an important impact on the core symptoms of autism and that it would also provide a much needed medication to improve the symptoms of the disorder.

Currently, the only medicine approved in the U.S. for patients with autism is risperidone, which treats aggression or self-injury, but not core symptoms of the illness.

“Oxytocin seems to be the first investigative treatment approach that holds promise for treating core symptoms like social cognition problems,” said Hollander.

Becky McCall is a freelance science writer based in Bristol, England. She also produces webcasts and is presenting a new British TV series.
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