Vol. 24, Issue 1: Fall 2016

Love is the Answer: the “love hormone” may have more benefits than we thought

Katerina Furman

Autism is a disorder that has long been deemed incurable. However, recent studies from Autism Speaks suggest a potential link between oxytocin administration and improved social skills, motivation, cognition, and attention in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although various studies have conflicting results, recent evidence has shown great promise in using oxytocin for the treatment of developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Oxytocin is a hormone, naturally occurring in the body, that doubles as a neurotransmitter. It is produced primarily in the magnocellular neurons in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei of the hypothalamus, where it is released either into the blood by the pituitary gland or into the central nervous system to bind with receptors. Oxytocin is released during positive social experiences such as intimate social experiences and physical contact, sex and orgasm, and childbirth and breastfeeding, but it can also be synthesized exogenously. The hormone has been coined the “cuddle drug” or the “love drug” due to its prevalent role in sex and other forms of social connection. Recently research by Autism Speaks has extended the role of oxytocin, often referred to as “OT,” by implicating it as a possible treatment for the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. In addition, next generation therapies such as MC4R agonists have been able to stimulate the release of endogenous oxytocin by the hypothalamus. Such therapies have the potential to evoke more targeted and concentrated effects than intranasal oxytocin, but are much less common.

According to recent studies, a single dose (20 μg intranasally) has been shown to play an integral role in the increase of group trust, eye contact, eased affect, face recognition, empathy, theory of mind, pair-bonding, motivation, social cognition, and social stress regulation in non-ASD individuals. Oxytocin has been used to improve social impairments in adults and adolescents suffering from developmental and psychiatric disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome, schizophrenia, Williams syndrome, depression, and more. Numerous explanations for this effect have been offered, the most likely being that oxytocin’s positive effect on ASD symptoms can be attributed to the fact that individuals on the autism spectrum have altered oxytocin responses.

A recent meta-analysis by Bio-Med Central analyzed seven studies of clinical trials from January 1990 to September 2013, the results of which, cumulatively, showed positive effects of OT intervention on autistic traits, especially emotion recognition and eye-contact. Additionally, studies showed OT to elicit a significant decrease in repetitive behavior typical of ASD, improved affective speech recognition, and increased performance on the “Reading-the-Mind-in-the-Eyes” test, demonstrating theory of mind capacities.

In a preliminary study, 19 adult ASD individuals diagnosed with either high-functioning ASD or asperger syndrome self-administered 24 IU of OT or placebo twice daily over six weeks. The experimental group demonstrated improved motor repetitive behavior, increased performance recognizing emotions, and self-reported improvement of quality of life. There were no reported side effects. Several other experiments have been conducted to reveal the same outcome.

The current prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in the United States is estimated at 1 in 68 children, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent findings show promise for the treatment of an otherwise pharmaceutically untreatable affliction, that could help integrate Autism spectrum children and adults into mainstream social interactions. Many trials have linked acute intranasal oxytocin to temporary enhancement of social cognition, empathy, and reciprocity in ASD individuals. However, a good deal of studies yielded results declaring oxytocin’s effect on ASD inconclusive or insignificant. With a little more research, daily doses of oxytocin could be the first treatment to a thus-far pharmaceutically untreatable affliction.