“Cuddle chemical” may help alleviate autism symptoms

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Oxytocin, a hormone often referred to as the “cuddle chemical” for its role in helping to foster intimate relationships—particularly between mothers and their newborns—may help people with autism to read and react to social cues, according to the preliminary results of a small study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders often have trouble engaging and interacting in social situations, frequently avoiding eye contact, for example, and previous research has also shown that people who are autistic often have lower levels of the hormone oxytocin. In this recent study, researchers from France’s Center of Cognitive Neuroscience used nasal inhalers to give oxytocin to 13 individuals with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Afterwards, the researchers examined the study participants’ reactions to social stimuli. They found that, after the oxytocin, the subjects showed significant improvement on social tasks—including making more eye contact when shown pictures of faces, and responding to other players in a ball tossing game.

Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”, is one powerful chemical: during physical intimacy, it increases for both men and women; it acts as a hormone to help induce labor and lactation in mothers; and it also serves as a nuerotransmitter in the brain—research suggests that it influences everything from our ability to fall in love, to our tendency toward monogamous relationships and ability to trust others. Should these initial findings be confirmed, they may suggest a potential therapeutic use of oxytocin for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. What’s more, it could even increase opportunities for early intervention for children diagnosed with autism. As Angela Sirigu, lead author of the study, told the Washington Post, “It’s possible it can become a cure, if it’s given early when the problems are detected in the little kids… We can change the way these patients interact with people from childhood.”