Oxytocin’s ability to boost social function could be useful in treating some children with autism, according to recent study findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Oxytocin appears to be a universal regulator of social functioning in humans,” Karen J. Parker, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a press release. “That encompasses both typically developing children as well as those with the severe social deficits we see in children with autism.”
Parker and colleagues evaluated 79 children with autism, 52 of their unaffected siblings and 62 unrelated children without autism to determine blood-oxytocin levels in each group, according to the press release.
Researchers found higher oxytocin levels were associated with better social functioning across all groups. Among the autism group, those with the lowest blood-oxytocin levels had worse social deficits.
Researchers also found that blood-oxytocin levels are heritable.
“It didn’t matter if you were a typically developing child, a sibling or an individual with autism: Your social ability was related to a certain extent to your oxytocin levels, which is very different from what people have speculated,” Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said in the press release. “The previous hypotheses saying that low oxytocin was linked to autism were maybe a little bit simplistic. It’s much more complex: Oxytocin is a vulnerability factor that has to be accounted for, but it’s not the only thing leading to the development of autism.”
Parker added that identifying biomarkers could help identify patients who would benefit from specific therapies.
Disclosure: See the full study for a complete list of the researchers’ financial disclosures.