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Oxytocin Therapy for Autism Gets Closer

This press release from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting is, to my knowledge, the first official, public announcement if something that oxytocin researchers have been saying among themselves for a long time: Oxytocin may prove to be a very helpful therapy for symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

At the conference, Eric Hollander and Jennifer Bartz of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence presented the results of their studies administering oxytocin to adults with autism spectrum disorder. They administered litocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, over a four-hour period and watched for signs of repetitive behavior, one of the symptoms of the disorder.

According to the press release,

"Studies with animals have found that oxytocin plays a role in a variety of behaviors, including parent-child and adult-to-adult pair bonding, social memory, social cognition, anxiety reduction and repetitive behaviors," explained Dr. Bartz. "However," adds Dr. Hollander, "we have only recently considered that administration of oxytocin can have behavioral effects. Autism is a particularly ripe neuropsychiatric disorder for studying this approach because it presents with the types of symptoms that have been found to be associated with the oxytocin system."

Study participants showed a significant decrease in repetitive behavior during the four hours. They also did better at picking up on the emotional tone of recorded speech. People receiving pitocin were compared to others receiving only distilled water; two weeks later, the groups were switched.

Interestingly, those who received oxytocin the first week retained their improvement in assigning emotional meaning to the recorded speech even when they were tested again two weeks later after receiving the placebo. This is important because the effects of administered oxytocin are considered not to last more than a few minutes.

Now, Hollander and Bartz are doing a new study administering oxytocin via a nasal spray over a six-week period.