Researchers from Yale University have found that while engaging with social information, children with autism spectrum disorders experienced enhanced brain activity after a single dose of the hormone oxytocin was administered through a nasal spray.

Results of their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body that has been implicated in social bonding. In fact, other research recently found that oxytocin stimulates the reward center in the brain, increasing partner attractiveness and strengthening monogamy.

According to the researchers from Yale, theirs is the first study to analyze how oxytocin affects brain function in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

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Researchers delivered oxytocin to children and adolescents with ASDs via a nasal spray, which resulted in enhanced brain activity toward social cues.

Led by study author Ilanit Gordon, the team conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment involving 17 children and adolescents with ASDs who were between the ages of 8 and 16.5.

After the participants were given either the oxytocin spray or a placebo, the researchers measured brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while the children and adolescents judged both socially and non-socially meaningful pictures.

The “social” pictures were images of eyes, whereas the “non-social” pictures were images of vehicles.

Because autism is a result of a neurological disorder that affects normal brain function, individuals with ASD have difficulty with communication and social interaction skills.

How the brains of these individuals react to socially meaningful images is therefore helpful for treatments that “target the core social dysfunction in ASD,” the researchers note.

The team found that, compared with the placebo group, the participants who received a single nasal dose of oxytocin experienced enhanced activity in the brain.

Ilanit Gordon explains further:

We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo. Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism.”

She adds that the oxytocin assisted social attunement – a process whereby brain regions involved with social behavior and cognition are activated more for social stimuli and less for non-social stimuli.

The researchers say that the neural attunement they observed “might facilitate social learning, thus bringing about long-term change in neural systems and subsequent behavioral improvements.”

“Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders,” Gordon concludes.