Hormonal help for autism?

Proof that the social parts of the autistic brain can function.

Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that helps mothers give birth and bond with their newborns, may also give a boost to the impaired social parts of the brains of people with autism. “We had always thought that in autism, these brain regions may not have developed at all, but it’s clear from our study that the cortical areas are there and able to function,” says Kevin A. Pelphrey, codirector of the Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience at the Yale Child Study Center. “With a single nasal spray of oxytocin, we can turn them on again and, briefly, normalize the brain.”

Pelphrey and his colleagues, including then–postdoc Ilanit Gordon (now an adjunct assistant professor at Yale), worked with 17 children, ages 8 to 16, all of whom had been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and were relatively high functioning. The kids were given either oxytocin or a placebo, then examined in a brain-imaging scanner while they took tests that engaged either the social or non-social processing parts of the brain. (The results appeared last December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

The socially oriented test involved looking at pictures of human eyes and gauging the emotions they conveyed. It ordinarily turns on the social parts of the brain—but not for people with autism. However, for the children in the experiment, says Pelphrey, the oxytocin “temporarily turned on the part of the brain that normally processes social information and it damped down the indiscriminate activation across the cortex that these kids were using to accomplish what for them is a very difficult task.” More study is needed, he cautions. “Parents are desperate, but this is not going to be a cure-all.”

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