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A Whiff of Oxytocin for Autism

Lewis Mehl-Madrona is an M.D. who doesn't see autism as an incurable disease. He's found that these kids have rich social and communicative lives, and that parents can learn the "secret language of their autistic children."

He's also found that they may respond to many different kinds of holistic treatments, including nutritional therapies, bodywork, acupuncture, biofeedback and behavioral education, as well as medication.

Mehl-Madrona, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, says, "I don’t think autism is one thing. I think many things are masquerading under the same label. It's not a one-cure illness, because it's not a one-cause illness."

Therefore, when he treats kids with autism spectrum disorder, he keeps testing various treatments until he finds some that improve the symptoms. He's a pragmatist, he says. "We just try lots of things until the kids get better."

One thing that sometimes works is oxytocin -- and in some kids, he says, it works really well.

Eric Hollander, a researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has done two studies of the benefits of oxytocin in autistic adults. In one, 15 adults showed a significant reduction in repetitive behaviors; in the second, oxytocin improved the ability of 15 adults to decipher the emotional content of speech. But both these studies used intravenous oxytocin, a process that's disturbing for children.

Mehl-Madrona uses the same oxytocin inhalers prescribed for lactating women. The kids inhale 37.5 units once a day.

"Kids who do respond to the oxytocin inhaler probably have some disorder of oxytocin production--  or maybe they make funny oxytocin," he says.

Functional MRI studies have found that the right amygdala in the brains of autistic kids are overactive. The amygdala is a hub in the brain responsible for processing information from the senses and assigning emotional meaning to it. In the normal brain, the right amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry or threatening face. But in the brains of autistic kids, the right amygdala lights up when they see any face, no matter what the expression. 

Inhaling oxytocin eases this response, keeping the right amygdala from activating so easily.
Mehl-Madrona has used the oxytocin inhaler treatment for a couple of years, in preparation for a true, randomized controlled trial.

So far, he says, "I'm encouraged.  Mostly what I'm seeing -- and it will take some more time to feel sure about this --is a decrease in repetitive, compulsive behaviors, including self-injurious ones, and better social interaction. I have one kid who is actually making empathetic statements. His mother was blown away."