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Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism

Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism

For years, scientists have been trying to sort out the role oxytocin plays in autism. The developmental disorder affects one in 68 U.S. children, causing social and communication deficits, repetitive behaviors and sensory problems. Oxytocin, which functions in the blood as a hormone and in the brain as a neurotransmitter, has long been known to have roles in enhancing social ability. Based on research in animal models, some people have speculated that oxytocin deficiency might contribute to autism. But prior human studies of the purported connection have produced a confusing picture.

The previous hypotheses saying that low oxytocin was linked to autism were maybe a little bit simplistic. It’s much more complex…

Now, a new Stanford paper publishing online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds interesting details to our understanding. The study is the largest ever to examine blood oxytocin levels in children with autism and two comparison groups without autism: kids who have autistic siblings and children who do not have siblings with autism.

The researchers found the same range of blood oxytocin levels across all three groups, with similar numbers of children with low, medium and high oxytocin levels in each category. Although, as expected, the kids with autism had social deficits, blood oxytocin level was clearly linked to social ability within each group. Children with autism who had low blood oxytocin had poorer social ability than autistic children with high blood oxytocin, for example, and typically developing kids with low blood oxytocin also had poor social ability compared to other typically developing children.

From our press release on the research:

“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,” said Antonio Hardan, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s senior author. Hardan is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who treats children with autism at [Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford].

“The previous hypotheses saying that low oxytocin was linked to autism were maybe a little bit simplistic,” he said. “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.”

The findings suggest that, although oxytocin deficiency may not explain all cases of autism, some kids with autism may still benefit from oxytocin-like medications. The researchers caution that their study needs to be repeated with measures of oxytocin in cerebrospinal fluid, since this liquid that bathes the brain may give better information about the nuances of oxytocin biology.

A Duke University scientist commented for a story on NPR’s health blog, Shots, about what the findings imply for the potential value of oxytocin therapy:

“It could be that if a kid has low oxytocin levels then they might benefit,” says Simon Gregory, a genomics researcher at Duke University who was not involved in the study. He is part of another group investigating the use of oxytocin to treat people with autism.

Gregory says it’s not surprising that children with autism have widely varying levels of oxytocin. “Autism isn’t a disease, it’s a spectrum” that can’t be linked to any one cause, he told Shots.

Stanford’s research team is also doing more work to clarify further details of the biology of oxytocin in autism.

Previously: Volunteers sought for autism drug study, Using Google Glass to help individuals with autism better understand social cues and “No, I’m not ready yet”: A sister’s translation for her brother with autis

6 Responses to “ Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism ”

  1. Nala Dleifneerg Says:

    This research should be tied in with the newest metadata findings on Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin)that show that the most common factor found to date (among children with autism) is the fact that before birth, their pregnant mothers received pitocin. Discussions currently focus on whether the administration of pitocin to the mother can destroy her child’s ability to produce oxitocin naturally. This theory could theoritically be tested in adults – to measure the natural oxitocin levels before and after administration of pitocin. Also, alternatives to pitocin must be found, as well as methods to stimulate natural oxitocin in those whose bodies do not produce enough.

  2. Jeanie Says:

    Very interesting. I have always believed that my son’s PDD NOS/ADHD was related to many factors at birth. As an analyst/statistician this fascinates me and gives hope that I can help him soon. I was 42 1/2 weeks when I was induced with pitocin. My son was 9 lbs 11 ounces, I wasn’t even dialating yet, which goes with him not triggering labor. I would be very interested to see his oxitocin levels. He is also very aggressive which worries me the most. I wish I could find someone that studies this on a regular basis to help test and work with him! :)

  3. Paul James Says:

    I searched on this because I know a person who is autistic and hugs really bother them. They are friendly but unlike when someone else gets a nice hug and it makes them feel close it doesn’t with them.
    This study is only measuring static levels of oxytocis, which in normal people rises with hugs cuddling or sex. Perhaps it does still play a role in autism because it didn’t look at if autistic peoples levels of oxytocis don’t rise and enhance bonding. A lot of hormones are like’s not so much the level but the change that produces the effect.
    My wife was given pitocin and our son is add but possibly mildly autistic too and had lot of problems being close with people. perhaps the effect is not just on the level there as well, but that it damages the flux like part.
    these are just ideas from a lay person.

  4. Jessica Brevard Says:

    My daughter has Autism, and she is taking hormone replacement of oxytocin on a daily basis. Blood work has shown her levels of oxytocin without the daily supplement are almost nonexistent. She is a little social butterfly now, and is doing so well in school and makes friends instantly. she loves everyone and is the most caring little girl. Without the oxytocin replacement, she wants nothing to do with anyone, withdrawls to her own little world and becomes aggressive towards anyone and everyone. Thank you for continued research.

  5. J.D. Flechas MD Says:

    The oxytocin in a fetus brain is what gets a mother to go into labor. If a child is born autistic it is because there is little oxytocin in its brain. The baby can not stimulate the mother into labor. Hence the need to give the mother oxytocin to get the baby out. You will find this information in DeGroot 5 vol. book on Endocrinology the chapter on oxytocin. Nala Dleifneerg needs to spend more time in study of oxytocin from the baby and its ability to stimulate the mother to go into labor.

  6. PRice Says:

    I applaud the study’s main finding. I wonder about the other weak, in my view, findings.

    For example, the finding that “Plasma OXT concentrations were highly heritable.” The researchers did not attempt to understand the contribution of the environment, as did similar studies.

    The researchers rather unscientifically, in my opinion, assumed genetic causes for the observed effects. That practice may have been fine decades ago with more primitive scientific techniques, but I don’t understand the value of one of the lead researchers saying “What our study hints at is that social function may be heritable in families” in 2014.


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