Doctor Larry Young discusses evidence of a relationship between oxytocin and autism, speculating that oxytocin may be used to treat autism.
Our work in animals shows that oxytocin, for example, is really involved in activating the brain’s social circuitry, in promoting social interactions [and] engagement with others. In autism, that system is really disabled. The autistic individuals have difficulty interacting with others, they have difficulty interpreting social cues, processing social information. They are less motivated to engage in social interactions and eye contact and things of that nature.
So one possibility is that perhaps given oxytocin’s role in promoting social interactions, that maybe in autism there is a disruption in the oxytocin system. There is some evidence of that; for example, autistic individuals have been shown to have decreased oxytocin levels in their plasma compared to non-autistic individuals. That was a single paper, but it sort of suggested that it could be important.
There are also other genetic studies that have found associations between differences in the oxytocin receptor gene and individuals with autism. So the genetic oxytocin system may contribute to the behavioral differences.
But even if the oxytocin system is not an explanation for autism, perhaps it could be a therapy because if oxytocin promotes social engagement, promotes social cognition, then perhaps in individuals who have disrupted social engagement such as in autism, you could alleviate some of that by driving the oxytocin system. For example, if you had a drug that could activate the oxytocin receptors in the reward areas, maybe you could give that to autistic individuals and it would make it such that social interactions were actually rewarding to them and promoting behavior.
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