MONDAY, Dec. 2, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Oxytocin, the hormone known to be linked with mother-child bonding and romantic love, appears to enhance brain function in children with autism, a small new study suggests.
In the study, 17 children with autism were given oxytocin and then had an MRI brain scan. Activity in areas of the brain linked with reward, social perception and emotional awareness increased when they were given tests that measured social awareness, the Yale University researchers reported.
"There are certain brain regions that oxytocin kind of 'tunes' for social processing," said study author Ilanit Gordon, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center.
Autism involves a range of neurodevelopmental disorders marked by repetitive behaviors and problems with social interaction and communication.
The research was published in this week's online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although other studies have suggested that oxytocin helps children and adults with autism interact socially, "we didn't know what was going on in the brain," Gordon said. The researchers decided to do MRIs of the children to track brain activity after they received the hormone.
The findings, however, are preliminary, Gordon said.
"We are just showing a change in brain function, not in behavior," she said. "We need to figure out how to utilize what is happening in the brain."
"The results of this study do not mean you need to go get oxytocin to improve social behavior [in children with autism]," she said. "The study is showing how kids on the spectrum respond when receiving oxytocin, and is guiding us in the future study of oxytocin's impact."
Children in the study, who were between the ages of 8 and 16, were all "high-functioning," she said. They had IQs over 75, and were able to understand instructions and speak.
Other researchers who have given oxytocin daily have found "underwhelming" results in terms of everyday interactions, Gordon said. In her future research, she hopes to pinpoint the best timing for giving the hormone, such as right before a behavioral treatment.
In recent years, many companies have been looking at ways to develop oxytocin-like agents that mimic the clinical effects linked with the hormone, said Robert Ring, chief science officer for Autism Speaks.
"This report adds to that story by shining a light on specific brain regions that appear to be involved in mediating the frequently described effects of oxytocin on social functioning in autism," Ring said.
Another expert, however, offered an important caveat.
"In this study, they weren't looking at the clinical response," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.
"The question is," he said, "how do you make the leap from an improvement in the laboratory setting with a single dose of oxytocin to a more sustained and meaningful benefit on a daily basis?"
Although Adesman would not rule out oxytocin as a future treatment, he said it's unlikely to be a cure.
To learn more about autism, visit Autism Speaks.