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Oxytocin improves brain function in children with autism

Brain • • Psychiatry / PsychologyMay 20, 12

Preliminary results from an ongoing, large-scale study by Yale School of Medicine researchers shows that oxytocin - a naturally occurring substance produced in the brain and throughout the body-  increased brain function in regions that are known to process social information in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

A Yale Child Study Center research team that includes postdoctoral fellow Ilanit Gordon and Kevin Pelphrey, the Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, will present the results on Saturday, May 19 at 3 p.m. at the International Meeting for Autism Research.

“Our findings provide the first, critical steps toward devising more effective treatments for the core social deficits in autism, which may involve a combination of clinical interventions with an administration of oxytocin,” said Gordon. “Such a treatment approach will fundamentally improve our understanding of autism and its treatment.”

Social-communicative dysfunctions are a core characteristic of autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that can have an enormous emotional and financial burden on the affected individual, their families, and society.

Gordon said that while a great deal of progress has been made in the field of autism research, there remain few effective treatments and none that directly target the core social dysfunction. Oxytocin has recently received attention for its involvement in regulating social abilities because of its role in many aspects of social behavior and social cognition in humans and other species.

To assess the impact of oxytocin on the brain function, Gordon and her team conducted a first-of-its-kind, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 with ASD. The team members gave the children a single dose of oxytocin in a nasal spray and used functional magnetic resonance brain imaging to observe its effect.

Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorders affect three different areas of a child’s life:

- social interaction
- communication (nonverbal and/or verbal)
- repetitive behaviors or interests

Each child with an autism spectrum disorder will have his or her own individual pattern of autism. Sometimes, a child’s development is delayed from birth. Other children with autism develop normally before suddenly losing social or language skills. In some children, a loss of language is the impairment. In others, unusual behaviors (like spending hours lining up toys) predominate.

Parents are usually the first to notice something is wrong. However, the diagnosis of autism is often delayed. The parents or a physician often downplay early signs of autism. They may optimistically suggest “it’s just a phase” or a trivial delay in development. Children with a suspected autism spectrum disorder should be evaluated by a professional team with experience in diagnosing autism.

There are three main types of autism spectrum disorder, and two rare, severe autistic-like conditions:

- Asperger’s syndrome
- pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- autistic disorder
- Rett’s syndrome
- childhood disintegrative disorder

The team found that oxytocin increased activations in brain regions known to process social information. Gordon said these brain activations were linked to tasks involving multiple social information processing routes, such as seeing, hearing, and processing information relevant to understanding other people.

Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism is an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of disorders, sometimes referred to as “Pervasive Developmental Disorders” or “Autism Spectrum Disorders.” This essay is intended as a basic introduction—a who, what, when, where, why, and how of autism.

WHO does autism affect?

Autism spectrum disorders cut across all lines of race, class, and ethnicity. Autism impacts millions of children, adults, and their families around the world. Boys have a significantly higher incidence of autism than girls: four out of every five people with autism are male. Because of the genetic link, siblings of a child with autism have a greater chance of being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders affect not only the person diagnosed with the disorder, but also make a significant impact on the entire family with a variety of social, financial, and other practical demands.

Other authors on the study include Randi H. Bennett, Brent C. vander Wyk, James F. Leckman, and Ruth Feldman.


WHAT is autism?
The word “autism” often evokes an image of a person with the most severe symptoms of the disorder; however, autism is an umbrella term for a wide range of disorders. Clinically, they may be referred to as “Pervasive Developmental Disorders” (PDDs) or “Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

The term “spectrum” is crucial to understanding autism, because of the wide range of intensity, symptoms and behaviors, types of disorders, and as always, considerable individual variation. Children with autism spectrum disorders may be non-verbal and asocial, as in the case of many with “classic” autism, or Autistic Disorder. On the other end of the spectrum are children with a high-functioning form of autism characterized by idiosyncratic social skills and play, such as Asperger Syndrome. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), these diagnostic categories are outlined under the heading of “Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs).” In the DSM-IV, these disorders are defined by deficits in three core areas: social skills, communication, and behaviors and/or interests. Types of autism spectrum disorders, or PDDs, include:

- Autistic Disorder
- Asperger Syndrome
- Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
- Rett Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Karen N. Peart
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Yale University

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