Oxytocin Nasal Spray Possible Treatment For Autism

Oxytocin Nasal Spray Possible Treatment For Autism

Oxytocin is a hormone associated pregnancy and many aspects of our social behavior. It has gained much attention of late after being shown to provide several additional health benefits, and now researchers, who’ve noted that some autistic children appear to have low blood levels of oxytocin, have developed an intranasal oxytocin spray they hope will soon be helping the lives of children living with autism.

What Does Oxytocin Do In The Brain And Body?

Dubbed the social hormone, oxytocin serves multiple purposes from aiding in childbirth to moderating trust, behavior and social relationships. Oxytocin is primarily created in the hypothalamus and is stored then released by the posterior pituitary gland. Its main purpose is to stimulate the uterine muscles during childbirth, it also regulates the flow of breast milk by facilitating the milk letdown reflex. In men oxytocin plays a role in sexual arousal and ejaculation.

In addition to the direct association with parts of the reproductive system, oxytocin also affects our behavior in several ways. This is due to the oxytocin-producing neurons located in the hypothalamus; an area of the brain that regulates basic bodily functions such as including body temperature, hunger and thirst, being projected into other parts of the brain such the nucleus accumbens; an area of the brain that plays key role in feeding, sexual, reward, stress-related and self-administration behaviors. Once oxytocin is produced, it is then past onto the nucleus accumbens, where the hormone regulates social-reward learning.

Studies On Oxytocin And Austim

What are the potential benefits of Oxytocin nasal spray?

When tested on lab rats, oxytocin in parts of the brain’s sensory system like the olfactory bulb, appeared to help balance both excitatory and inhibitory signals, which led to improved social-information processing. Futhermore, oxytocin in the amygdala, seemed to improve social recognition whilst simultaneously dulling threat responses to negative social information.

Scientists first identified oxytocin’s role in social interactions in prairie voles, in a 1995 study, where they identified the hormone being released when the animals mated; this lead to the formation of a monogamous bonds.

The study found that blocking the animals’ oxytocin receptors inhibited their pair bonding abilities, whilst administering oxytocin facilitated bonding without the need for mating.

According to a 2009 study, giving young kids small amounts of oxytocin was shown to improve their ability to bond later in life, and also decreased the development of anxiety-like behavior.

However, an opposing 2012 study found, that long-term treatment impaired their ability to bond as adults.

Stanford Medicine Research

Study shows which children with autism respond best to oxytocin treatment. The brain hormone may help treat social impairments in children with autism whose baseline oxytocin levels are low before treatment, according to new Stanford findings.
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Is There A Connection Between Autism And Oxytocin?

Some studies have found autistic children to have lower levels of oxytocin in the blood compared with their non-autistic peers. And autistic children with lower levels demonstrate poorer social skills than those with comparatively higher levels. But not all autistic people have low levels of oxytocin, nor do they all have altered oxytocin receptors.

Scientists are unsure why this difference occurs, but do note that some autistic people have genetic variants in their OXTR, aka oxytocin receptor, a protein that oxytocin binds to in order to carry out its functions, and it could be variants such as these behind the different in how the condition presents.

The relationship between oxytocin and autism is not yet fully understood, the heterogenetic characteristic of the condition makes it extremely difficult to even if there’s a single a cause, let a lone uncover that cause. However, not knowing an exact cause doesn’t mean what we do know is useless. For example, studies that demonstrated a link between oxytocin and autism have lead to the development of a nasal spray, that whilst is still only in clinical trial stages, still shows a viable treatment is at least possible utilizing our current understanding.

Oxytocin Nasal Spray Treatment For Autism

Oxytocin Nasal Spray Improves Social Function in People with Autism

Whilst scientist suspected that increasing levels of oxytocin in the blood would have a positive effect on its related functions, unfortunately when the hormone is in the blood it cannot then enter the brain; which is why the treatment was created as a nasal spray.

Being administered in the form of a spray the solution can reach the olfactory bulb, which sits just above the nasal cavity where it projects neurons into brain. The body can take up oxytocin administered this way; essentially a direct nose-to-brain highway that bypasses the prohibitive bloodstream.

Participants who received the intranasal oxytocin were shown to pay more attention to others’ faces during the experiment, which was conducted in the form of a corporative game. This provided evidence that the hormone can address one of autism’s core traits; the difficulty interpreting facial expressions and emotions.

Those who received oxytocin also showed a willingness to engage with other players during the game, much more than those who did not receive the treatment.

However, an alternative study that also looked into the effectiveness of oxytocin nasal spray did not find the same results. In this 2021 study, the children with autism who were administered oxytocin demonstrated no improvement.

Yet again, on the other hand, an older study, conducted in 2017, showed that children with autism with low levels of oxytocin in their blood would show improvements in social skills after oxytocin treatment, whereas those who did not receive the oxytocin, expectedly showed no change in skill level.

Autistic people who received intranasal oxytocin paid greater attention to others’ faces during a cooperative game, evidence that the hormone can address one of autism’s core traits, according to a small 2010 study.

So Why The Mixed Results?

Scientists theorize the disparity in results is not down to the link between oxytocin and autism being completely incorrect, but is more likely due to the tools utilized to measure the participants’ levels of social withdrawal not being sensitive enough.

Elissar Andari, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who was involved in the 2010 study, explained that in order to get accurate results it was necessary to measure slight improvements in other skills, such as the ability to pick up on intuitive cues and/or subtle norms that boost autistic people’s social behavior skills, a factor that may not have sufficiently considered.

Some experts believe that the mixed results may be a result of intranasal oxytocin being unable to reach the neurons responsible for social behavior. In order to combat this new research has been designed to test molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate the release of oxytocin. Unpublished data from research into prairie voles suggests that the molecule melanotan II may improve oxytocin release in the brain.

A third possible reason for the skewed results is that oxytocin’s effect on social behavior can be limited since the context of the treatment lacks social cues.

Andari, as well as other experts, note that oxytocin increases the importance of social stimuli, and therefore studies should be done in conjunction with behavioral therapies to maximize the benefits.

Of course with inconsistencies in the research still being prevalent the new isn’t that treatment is just around the corner, however, there is a growing suspicion that the variance is down to methodology rather than faulty hypothesis, and the recent studies utilizing nasal spray clearly demonstrate researchers desire to overcome these inconsistencies. With this in mind perhaps it won’t be too far in the future that we see the release of a working treatment that can give extra assistance to children with autism to improve their social skills and behavior.

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