Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Oxytocin and Autism Buzz

There are so many stories about causes of autism, treatments and cures, almost all of which turn out to be of little or no merit or substance that it is easy to ignore the latest story to come to public attention. Of late old dads and TV watching have taken their bows on the stage. The latest buzz is about Oxytocin a hormone which scientists say assists in trust and ...... in reading emotions and social cues in others. Hence the potential tie to autism. And researchers are starting to suggest a connection to autism as both cause and cure. Beating a drum about this latest research development is probably unwarranted at this early stage. But it looks interesting so far.

Dec. 13, 2006

Special to World Science

Re­search­ers in re­cent years have in­tense­ly stud­ied a hor­mone thought to be re­le­vant to aut­ism, a dis­or­der that has stirred grow­ing alarm. And the longer the scru­ti­ny of the hor­mone, ox­y­to­cin, goes on, the longer grows a list of some­times sur­pris­ing pow­ers at­tri­buted to it. These are prompt­ing sci­ent­ists to pro­pose the chem­i­cal might help treat aut­ism.

Last year, one group iden­ti­fied it as a hor­mone that helps us to trust. Now, re­search­ers say it may also aid us with “mind read­ing,” or the abil­i­ty to gauge oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tions based on sub­tle so­cial cues.


The Mount Si­nai re­search­ers worked with 15 peo­ple di­ag­nosed with ei­ther au­tism or Aspe­rger’s Syn­drome, a si­m­i­lar con­di­tion of­ten viewed as a mild form of au­tism. In the stu­dy, the pa­tients re­ceived ox­y­to­cin in­fu­sions and, on a sep­a­rate day, in­fu­sions of an in­ac­tive sub­stance for com­par­i­son.

The sci­en­tists found that both treat­ments led to bet­ter scores on a test that in­volved dis­cern­ing the emo­tional tone of pre-recorded state­ments, but the im­prove­ments lasted long­er with ox­y­to­cin treat­ment.

A pre­vi­ous stu­dy, pub­lished in the June 2, 2005 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture, found that a whiff of ox­y­to­cin made peo­ple more like­ly to trust some­one else to look af­ter their cash.

Some com­men­ta­tors started to dub ox­y­to­cin the “trust hor­mone” af­ter that. But the new­est find­ings sug­gest that its pow­ers in social func­tion­ing ex­tend well be­yond trust, in­to “mind-reading” abil­i­ty as well, wrote re­search­ers with Ros­tock Uni­ver­si­ty in Ros­tock, Ger­ma­ny, in Bi­o­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try’s Nov. 28, 2006 ad­vance on­line edi­tion.

This group tested 30 healthy men on the “Read­ing the Mind in the Eyes Test,” which in­volves judg­ing peo­ple’s emo­tional state based on pho­tographs of their eyes. The par­ti­ci­pants sniffed ei­ther ox­y­to­cin or an in­ac­tive sub­stance, one week apart, and were found to do bet­ter with the ox­y­to­cin.

Like the two pre­vi­ous stud­ies, it was dou­ble-blind, mean­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors weren’t aware at any giv­en time of wheth­er par­ti­ci­pants had got­ten the real or the sham treat­ment.

“The abil­i­ty to ‘read the mind’ of oth­er in­di­vid­u­al, that is, to in­fer their men­tal state by in­ter­pret­ing sub­tle so­cial cues, is in­dis­pen­sa­ble in hu­man so­cial in­ter­ac­tion,” the re­search­ers wrote. Be­cause au­tism is char­ac­ter­ized both by low ox­y­to­cin and “by dis­tinct im­pair­ments in mind-read­ing,” they added, “ox­y­to­cin should be con­sid­ered a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the path­o­gen­e­sis [cause] and treat­ment of au­tism.”

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