Have scientists found relief for autism patients?

Chances are, you know someone who has been diagnosed with autism. It has impacted so many lives all over the world, and science is hard at work to help find possible causes and treatments. Recently, a possible new treatment was discovered and tested. Oxytocin (not to be confused with that awesome stuff they give you when you get your wisdom teeth out), a hormone which helps create emotional bonds and trust, could possibly help children with autism to better their social behaviors.  

Oxytocin, referred to as "the love hormone," was recently used in a new double-blind placebo trial to test its ability to increase social empathy and connections while lowering the repetitive behavior that is characteristic of autism. The experiment was relatively small (only 17 children), which made the results rather inconclusive. Aside from that, it was a well-designed experiment. A group of children with autism were all given a dosage of something -- some children received the oxytocin, while other received the placebo. Then, each child was put into a functional MRI machine, which shows brain activity, and were then asked to answer a series of questions and tests. The questions were geared toward triggering the part of the brain responsible for social behavior which is the same part that the oxytocin impacts.  

The null hypothesis stated that there was no relation -- that is to say, oxytocin did not cause any improvement in autistic children. The alternative hypothesis said that there was some sort of connection between the two. The children who received the oxytocin showed increased activity in the part of the brain that controls empathy and reward. Another part of the test also decreased activity due to oxytocin (although it did not say in which part of the brain), which also excited doctors. "If you can decrease their attention to a shape or object so you can get them to pay attention to a social stimulus, that's a big thing," said a psychology professor. The part that puzzled me was that children who received oxytocin did not necessarily do any better on the social-emotional test, although that, doctors say, could be due to the fact that it is extremely difficult for children to answer questions while remaining still for an MRI. So, while this was a small test, it showed a strong correlation between distribution of oxytocin and brain activity with regards to social behavior. Because of the promise that this study showed, a larger study will be conducted to reduce the probability that this is all due to chance.

If I were to conduct the next study, I would pay attention to the severity of a child's autism. This study was done with only mild cases. In the larger study, I would hope to see the level of severity of the disease measured and related to the effects of the oxytocin as well as how much oxytocin was administered. Perhaps those with more severe autism simply need a higher dosage of the hormone, or perhaps their brain is unfortunately too severely impaired to be helped with this medicine. In order for this to be implemented as a common and long-term treatment, tests would have to be run on the lasting effects of increased oxytocin levels on the body and mind, in both healthy people and those with autism. It is unknown whether oxytocin is more effective than other treatments of autism, but based on the given data, oxytocin would probably have to be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, such as social therapy. 

Another use for oxytocin, which is unrelated to autism, is for childbirth. According to this article, oxytocin is used to both stimulate contractions, and is triggered by the pain from initial contractions. I feel that another study could be conducted which showed if there is any relation between the biological mechanisms for autism versus childbirth, and if so, how that relations works. (For more effects of oxytocin, click here.)

 I think there is a strong case to be made here, as there seems to be a logical biological mechanism that shows how oxytocin can improve social behavior in children with autism.  In the grand scheme of things, autism is a daily struggle for those who have it, and important advances like this really do make a difference. Obviously any improvement in the lives of those children would be immensely helpful to both them and their parents, and I think that science is really on the right track with experiments such as this.


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