Updated: Jul 28
A scattering of studies have shown that oxytocin can lead to autistic people experiencing an increase in eye contact and emotion recognition. There are very few therapy’s that have been proven effective in impacting the core features of autism so should we all be running to our doctors demanding the latest miracle cure? Well before you make the dash it might be worth firstly understanding what oxytocin is and what the evidence tells us about the role it might play in autism.
Oxytocin is often known as the love hormone due to the role it plays in social bonding and attachment. It is released during hugging, social gaze, breast feeding, sexual intercourse, giving birth and even petting a dog. An interesting study by Mitchell, Abu-Akel and Gillespie draws comparisons between the experience of oxytocin and moderate alcohol consumption so when people claim to be ‘drunk on love’ that might be the oxytocin talking! There are many positive effects mediated by oxytocin production including reduction of fear and feelings of anxiety but it is worth noting that studies exploring the effects of oxytocin on stress reduction showed that oxytocin did not act alone in reducing stress but instead enhanced the impact of social supports in lowering stress in participants. However there may be more to the role of oxytocin than immediately meets the eye. Scientists are beginning to show oxytocin is not simply the ‘feel good’ hormone many people believe. Robert C Froemke a neuroscientist states that ‘oxytocin seems to act like a volume dial, turning up and amplifying brain activity related to whatever someone is already experiencing.’ Studies have also shown that people who have experienced social isolation or social disruption have higher than average oxytocin levels. It seems that as well as making us feel good when we have positive social encounters oxytocin can also exacerbate the pain when social interactions are unsuccessful leading to the heartache we feel when a relationship ends. Oxytocin has also been shown to increase other less desirable social feelings such as envy, gloating and ‘in’ group behavior leading to bias towards outsiders.
Our next question is what is the relationship between autism and oxytocin? Due to the difficulties many autistic people experience in relationships researchers have been trying to find out whether oxytocin levels are lower in autistic people than in the general population. A study led by Karen Parker in 2014 did not find this to be the case. In her study the researchers looked at the oxytocin levels of nearly 200 children including autistic children, their siblings and non-autistic children. Their study did not find a significant difference between the oxytocin levels of the autistic children and any of the other groups. What they did find was that the children with higher oxytocin levels whether they were autistic or not, tended to have higher levels of social functioning. A further finding of this study was that the oxytocin levels of children largely correlated with the oxytocin levels of their parents so that children with low oxytocin levels had parents with corresponding low levels and vice versa. Whilst this may lead us to believe there is an underlying genetic influence on oxytocin levels a separate study showed that when fathers were given a dose of oxytocin before playing with their children not only did the concentration of oxytocin in the father’s blood go up but so did the concentration of oxytocin in the children’s blood although the reason for this correlation is not clear.
At the beginning of this article, I referenced studies that have found that providing autistic children with doses of oxytocin can increase eye gaze and emotion recognition however the results of studies in this area are not consistent. It may be that increasing oxytocin levels is only effective in enhancing social behaviors for autistic children who had low levels to begin with and not for those who started with higher baseline oxytocin levels. Indeed, Karen Parker and her team went on to run a small scale study on the impact of oxytocin on social behavior. She tested the impact of giving oxytocin doses to 16 autistic children (16 were given a placebo) and she found as predicted that those who started with the lowest initial levels of oxytocin did see the biggest changes in their social behavior. The question then becomes what happens to people who start with a high baseline oxytocin levels who are given an additional dose? Some scientists believe that too much oxytocin can lead to over sensitivity to social cues. This over sensitivity could lead to every movement, change in tone of voice or facial expression being perceived as having some ulterior meaning which could lead to paranoia and an over focus on others whilst neglecting the self. We probably do not even want to imagine the pain of a broken heart when ramped up on oxytocin. Whilst it is assumed by many that autistic people lack empathy, the reverse is often true with many autistic people being acutely empathetic so for these individuals an increase in oxytocin levels may really be a bad idea. As with most things in the world of autism research there is not enough evidence to support the use of oxytocin as a therapy for autism, so whilst we probably should not jump on the oxytocin bandwagon just yet maybe we should take a moment to pay homage to this quite remarkable hormone.