Love hormone fights autism

By Ann Griswold • Published: May 4th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Raging hormones are blamed for everything from teenage lust to violent P-M-S, but when it comes to love, the hormone that rages most is called oxytocin. Now scientists say boosting levels of this so-called “love hormone” may help people with autism become more socially minded.

People with high-functioning forms of autism like Asperger’s syndrome can be extremely intelligent but stumble over social interactions. Researchers in Lyons, France noticed that people with autism also tend to have lower levels of oxytocin and decided to see if an extra boost of the hormone would improve their social behavior.

They gathered thirteen adults with Asperger’s syndrome and asked them to inhale a placebo or a nasal spray containing oxytocin. Afterward, they played a computer game of catch where one of the characters tried to bully the others by stealing the ball. Most adults had trouble telling the bully from the friendly players… until they inhaled oxytocin. The hormone opened their eyes to the concepts of fairness and empathy, allowing them to steer clear of the bully.

Afterward, the adults were shown a series of faces to see how well they could look others in the eye, a difficult feat for many with autism. Without the oxytocin, the adults gazed quickly at the chins and mouths before looking away. But adults who inhaled the hormone made stronger and longer eye contact, suggesting they were more comfortable making social contact.

Scientists are now studying the effects of long-term exposure to oxytocin and hope their results will lead to a new therapy, but the process may take several years.