Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can Oxytocin Improves Autism Emotion Recognition?

Every culture varies in experience, but one thing that is shared between humans is facial expressions that reveal specific emotions (i.e. happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and fear). Studies have been conducted by anthropologists and scientists that provide support for this universal experience; the greatest agreement being the identification of happiness and the least agreement being in the identification of anger or fear, however, individuals who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are unable to decipher, understand, or reciprocate something as simplistic as a smile or a furrowed brow. However, this does not mean that researchers have given up on finding away to treat such deficits; on the contrary, studies are continuously pursued in the hope to better and improve the lives of such individuals.

One study in particular revolves around a hormone known as oxytocin, which has effects on brain functioning and is associated with facilitating labour, delivery, and breast-feeding, it is also important in promoting trust, love, and social recognition. This study which was published in Biological Psychiatry by Elsevier and highlighted, Australian autism experts who recruited adolescents with ASDs. Using a rigorous study design, they administered a single dose each of oxytocin and placebo via a nasal spray, which was received one week apart. Both times, the subjects were asked to complete a facial expression task that measures emotion recognition.Compared to administration of the placebo spray, the subjects' performance on the task was improved when they received the oxytocin spray (Elsevier, 2008).

These findings provide the first evidence that "a brief and simple intervention can improve emotion understanding in autism, or in fact any clinical disorder associated with social dysfunction. It is also the first to show the benefits of oxytocin nasal spray in young people, suggesting potential for earlier intervention where there may be greater opportunity to improve development," explained author Dr. Adam Guastella. "This study, therefore, makes an important advance with the longer-term hope that oxytocin could be used to improve social function in everyday settings for clinical disorders associated with social dysfunction" (Elsevier, 2008).

Note: Since this was a relatively small study, additional research is still needed to confirm these promising findings and further evaluate oxytocin as a potential treatment.


  1. I think this study is great. I work with many children with autism and it is so hard to watch other children try to play with them and have a strange reaction toward them. I am really interested to see what further exploration into this subject will find out. Maybe some day there will be even better early intervention that will virtually erase the signs of autism.

  2. I'm also very interested to see further study gone towards helping present a social disorder we know so little about (autism). Just the knowledge that early precautions such as breastfeeding or oxytocin administration could be taken to help steer a potentially autistic child in a better social direction would be a step in the right direction towards helping those with autism. There is so much to learn about autism and any information about it always catches my attention.