What the ‘Love Hormone’ Has to Do With Autism

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The latest findings hint at why autistic children are more interested in objects and ideas than they are in other people.

And that insight could lead to new treatments. The study, which was published in the journal Nature, shows for the first time, in mice, a connection between the “bonding” hormone oxytocin and the brain systems that produce pleasure and motivation. Oxytocin levels surge during orgasm, pregnancy and in the first stages of new romance, which is why it’s known as the “love” or “cuddle” chemical; but some scientists have shown genetic changes in autistic children that may alter these effects.

Now, researchers at Stanford University have detailed how interfering with oxytocin’s activity can inhibit social behavior. Oxytocin partners with another brain chemical, serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of satisfaction and reward, in order to make social contact comforting, and worth repeating. And that rewarding reinforcement may not be occurring properly in the brains of autistic individuals.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

“People with autism-spectrum disorders may not experience the normal reward the rest of us all get from being with our friends,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Malenka, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University said in a statement, “For them, social interactions can be downright painful.”

Indeed, mice that could not activate both oxytocin and the brain chemical serotonin did not act like their normally social selves.

“It’s great study and has some interesting implications,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorders clinic at Montefiore/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was not involved in the research.

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While oxytocin has long been suspected to play a role in the altered social development typical of autism, until now, scientists were unable to connect oxytocin to the pleasure regions of the brain in social animals, like mice, that aren’t monogamous. (In monogamous prairie voles, oxytocin activation was linked to reward and believed to solidify the bond between mates, but it wasn’t clear if the same held true for animals with non-monogamous relationships.) If oxytocin receptors weren’t present in reward regions, for example, it wouldn’t make sense that animals would enjoy the social contact the hormone promoted or seek it out.

The connection to serotonin may also explain why antidepressants like Prozac, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) can sometimes be helpful in autism, allowing patients to connect better with others rather than withdrawing and being isolated. The results also provide hope that adding oxytocin to SSRI or serotonin-based treatments might lead to more improvements in behavior.

“Our results suggest that maybe combining oxytocin with a serotonin drug might be beneficial,” says Malenka. Clinical trials testing oxytocin as a treatment for autism are ongoing; one trial, which only lasted four days, failed to find an effect, but researchers believe that longer exposure is probably necessary.

Hollander already uses a combination of  Prozac or similar drugs with oxytocin in his clinical practice. “I have seen synergistic effects and I think they go very well together,” he says, noting that they tend to work on different symptoms, “I use SSRI’s to target higher order [compulsive and repetitive] rituals, routines and anxiety and use oxytocin to help with social communication and reward.”

If autism results in part from children failing to take pleasure in social contact that others find fun, then it may also explain why early behavioral interventions that make social contact more inviting and enjoyable seem to help. Some studies have shown that starting these therapies early enough can even change brain activity to resemble more normal patterns that find social interactions rewarding and satisfying.

MORE: Common Genetic Ground Found for Depression, Schizophrenia, Autism

While there is already a drug that can improve sociability—MDMA (otherwise known as ecstasy or Molly)— it’s probably too controversial to consider even for autistic adults, let alone children. It acts by influencing both serotonin and oxytocin, but can cause potentially fatal overheating if taken in the wrong setting. Researchers are testing the drug as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s not clear yet if similar tests are justified in autism cases.

Scientists, however, are hoping that further study on the drug can yield better understanding of how either modified versions of MDMA, or drugs like it, might help in treating conditions like autism. “There are risks and you can get some toxicity,” Hollander says, “But I do think the phenomenon of MDMA playing a role in [making social experiences more compelling] and shifting attention from self to others and communion is very interesting.”

14 comments
SamGoff
SamGoff

Just because a child has autism and is different to mainstream kids doesn't mean you should feed them strong mind altering drugs such as a prozac, as if they have an illness that needs to be fixed. Autism is not an illness it is a disability for use of a better word. This is just another way for drug companies to justify and prescribe drugs to a wider part of society. Firstly herbal drugs such as 5HTP are widely available, and is very safe and highly effective at producing serotonin (if one was  going to go through with such a ridiculous idea). Secondly the child should have an informed choice whether he or she would like to be taking such mind altering drugs, rather than a parent or guardian wishing the child was more 'normal' or 'social'. Maybe the parent should take some drugs so they can tune in with the autistic child if they are so bothered, or maybe go get some help on how to respect the rights of the child, and respect people with disabilities for who they are. 

artsieaspie
artsieaspie

Is there a reason this is being talked about specifically in relation to *children* with autism?  Do we know (or suspect) that it's different for we autistic adults?

StevenHillmuffin
StevenHillmuffin

Gosh, another great article Maia.....and it makes perfect sense that oxytocin would be involved.....wonder if the level goes way down in pregnant women that are stressed or aren't getting enough love n attention? And how do the other autism triggers tie in (diesel smoke, etc)? Now I'm gonna have to google all that!    Well, I'll certainly be keeping an eye on your publications....you must have a great medical background....fascinating stuff, isn't it? Cheers.....

AlainCouvier
AlainCouvier

The origins of the problematics in oxytocin may well lead to better understand of the interface between ASD x Viral infections. 

For example -

Gestational flu exposure induces changes in neurochemicals, affiliative hormones and brainstem inflammation, in addition to autism-like behaviors in mice.

 "We found that flu exposure was also associated with reductions in oxytocin and serotonin (p⩽0.05) levels in male and female offspring and sex-specific changes in dopamine metabolism. 

In addition we found changes in catecholaminergic and microglia density in brainstem tissues of male flu exposed offspring only (p⩽0.05). 

This study demonstrates that gestational viral exposure induces behavioral changes in mice, which are associated with alterations in affiliative hormones. In addition we found sex-specific changes in locomotor behavior, which may be associated with sex-specific alterations in dopamine metabolism and brainstem inflammation.

MrDexB
MrDexB

No thanks. I'll take social and romantic relationships as they comes naturally, my way.

nrdavis
nrdavis

" There's nothing a mainstream doctor can tell a new mom so that her healthy baby won't also lose learned skills and regress into autism by age two."

 Indeed, since the current evidence suggests that ASD begins to develop long before birth, the best that can be done at present is to closely monitor each child and seek early intervention, if necessary, since that has been shown to be beneficial. 

The placentas from pregnancies of children at risk for ASD (that is, the younger siblings of children with ASD) are different from low-risk pregnancies in ways that the investigators believe reflect genetic differences. Boys who later regress into ASD have followed an abnormal brain growth trajectory since at least the first time point investigated (six months) in a manner that suggests that abnormal development began early in pregnancy. Children who later develop ASD have abnormal accumulations of fluid in their brains by the first time point imaged (four months) of a type that has been previously shown to begin before birth. Children with ASD who were examined bronchioscopically have abnormal branching of their airways in a fashion that must develop in the first months gestation. Children who appeared normal until they developed seizure disorders and autistic symptoms have been repeatedly shown to have pre-existing mutations that cause the syndrome whether or not the child (or the laboratory animal) has been recently vaccinated. Many factors that are known to increase the risk that a child will develop ASD affect early gestational development.

That's life--but careful attention and early intervention can help.

AnneDachel1
AnneDachel1

Why is it that "the latest findings" can never tell us why ONE IN EVERY 50 U.S. CHILDREN now has autism? How come autism is never a crisis to researchers? They treat autism as a medical curiosity that they have all the time in the world to figure out. This report didn't even mention the rate.

We weren't told that officially, autism has no known cause or cure. There's nothing a mainstream doctor can tell a new mom so that her healthy baby won't also lose learned skills and regress into autism by age two.

It seems that coming up with drugs for children with autism is the only real goal here.

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

Aer_O_Head
Aer_O_Head

@MrDexB This article isn't about "normal" (i.e., neurotypical) people. And it isn't about Paul Zak, with his "Love Drug" and "Moral Molecule" sensational, snake-oil junk science. This is about using real science to help people who need it and want it. BTW, serious studies have shown that increased oxytocin levels do little or nothing for most people having naturally normal levels. Autistic people, as a general rule, have lower levels, and seem to benefit from supplementation. The truth is that Paul Zak has shamelessly muddied these waters with his sensationalism. He isn't even a scientist. He's an economist, and his business is making money. He has done us all a disservice.

StevenHillmuffin
StevenHillmuffin

@nrdavis : excellent info.......wondered if this wasn't the case.....suppose the same genetics makes the embryo more sensitive to environmental toxins as well....

Aer_O_Head
Aer_O_Head

P.S. I decided to check your profile, as I'd never heard of Age of Autism. I saw that you complained in the comments of another article that there's never been a definitive study of autism vis-a-vis vaccinations and thimerosal, etc. I beg to disagree. Several studies have definitively shown that there is no linkage. If you think that's the answer to the problem, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Aer_O_Head
Aer_O_Head

@AnneDachel1 It's generally accepted that the numbers are rising because of broader definitions (as in the DSM revisions) and increased awareness (both professional and public). We are currently diagnosing people who would have simply been written off as "problem children" 50 years ago. And that is a good thing, as I think you'll agree!

StevenHillmuffin
StevenHillmuffin

@AnneDachel1 : Yes, well any advances are helpful.......but the environmental links obviously can only be fixed by treating them, eh?

artsieaspie
artsieaspie

@Aer_O_Head @AnneDachel1 As an autistic adult with several obviously autistic but never diagnosed older relatives, I can very much vouch for the existence of older, undiagnosed autistics.

Another thing I'd like to know about autism statistics is whether a diagnosed person is counted in the stats for the year they're diagnosed or the year they were born.  Do I count in the autism figures for 2006, or 1981?  If (as I suspect) it's the former, that has the potential to massively skew the apparent incidence rate.