A single dose of oxytocin enhances brain activity while children with autism engage in social information, according to results of a recent study performed by researchers from Yale University. Conditions in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), are developmental disorders that cause problems with social skills. Normally, communication and social areas of the brains of children with ASD show very little response to social situations. The researchers showed that oxytocin improved this brain activity.

Oxytocin is a type of naturally occurring hormone that, like other hormones, works as a chemical messenger. The body releases hormones in response to changes in the environment inside the body or outside of it. Hormones travel to various organs or tissues through the bloodstream then work slowly, over time to alter cell metabolism. The hypothalamus in the human brain produces oxytocin; this hormone affects cells in the brain and in other parts of the body.

The human body contains about 50 different hormones and each is associated with a specific response. Scientists sometimes refer to oxytocin as the “cuddle hormone” because research shows a strong association between oxytocin levels and social bonding. Oxytocin levels rise, for example, when couples hug and kiss.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, this newest research is the first to study how oxytocin might affect brain function in children with ASD. The scientists studied 17 children aged 8 to 16.5 years. The researchers gave the participants nasal sprays containing either oxytocin or a placebo. The scientists then showed the participants pictures while scanning their brains with MRIs. The pictures were either social in nature, depicting human eyes, or non-social images of vehicles.

The scientists found that participants that received oxytocin showed enhanced brain activity. This hormone seems to normalize brain activity in children with ASD. The research may someday help scientists develop treatments that will bring about long-term changes that improve the social skills in children with autism.

Source: Gordon, Ilanit, and Brent C. Vander Wyk. "Oxytocin Enhances Brain Function in Children with Autism." PNAS. 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.