Oxytocin Inhalation Project
Simon Baron-Cohen, Markus Heinrichs, Bonnie Auyeung, Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Mike Lombardo, Pradeep Nathan, Rebecca Clark-Elford, Stephanie Mok.
A number of studies suggest that oxytocin (a peptide hormone) plays a key role in social behaviour and social understanding. In studies of typical individuals, increases in oxytocin appears to be correlated with increases in trust and in emotion recognition ability. In animal studies it also seems to be associated with social interest. Oxytocin is released during childbirth and lactation and is thought to facilitate the social relationship of attachment between mother and infant. It is also released in response to touch and during sexual relationships suggesting it plays a role in intimate emotional relationships.
This hormone is of particular interest because a number of genetic studies of autism (including a recent study undertaken at the ARC) have found differences in the genes related to oxytocin and some studies have also found reduced levels of blood plasma oxytocin. This project seeks to confirm reduced oxytocin levels in an independent sample of people with Asperger Syndrome.
Treatment trials of intravenous oxytocin in autism report benefits for emotion recognition. The ARC is conducting a new oxytocin study using a nasal spray since this acts directly on the brain whereas intravenous oxytocin administration affects peripheral blood serum levels of oxytocin but these may not correlate with levels in the brain. As far as is known there are no side-effects of the nasal spray oxytocin inhalation method, which has been used safely by our collaborators in Zürich in typical individuals.
We are interested to confirm if oxytocin affects social skills (especially empathy) positively and we also wish to test if oxytocin has any negative impact on areas of strength in autism (such as attention to detail). As with all treatments or interventions for autism, it is important that there are careful evaluations of their benefits and of any unwanted side-effects so that parents and clinicians can make informed choices about their use.
A parallel study is testing oxytocin nasal spray treatment effects in patients with Social Anxiety Disorder. A final project is testing oxytocin gene knock out mouse models using neuroimaging and behavioural protocols, in a collaboration with NIH.