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Oxytocin May Benefit Children With Autism: Study Finds Love Hormone Improves Social Skills Of Autistic Kids

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An Australian study found autistic children who used oxytocin-laced nasal spray showed developments in their behavioral, social and emotional problems. Oxytocin is a natural-occurring hormone in the human body associated with child-parent bond and romantic connections.

The study involved 31 children with autism, age ranges from three to eight years old. The children were provided nasal sprays laced with oxytocin and parents were advised to use them in the span of five weeks with twice-a-day usage.

After the study period, researchers found that the kids who used the oxytocin nasal sprays showed great improvements in terms of social, emotional and behavioral activities. While there were side effects such as constipation, urination and thirstiness, the improvements were very significant compared to the kids who did not receive the oxytocin nasal sprays.

"What we think it is doing is increasing the salience of social cues, and helping the brain get more effective at understanding and responding to these cues," said senior author Associate Professor Adam Guastella from the University of Sydney.

Researchers found that oxytocin contributed to changes in the brain part responsible for social behavior. The study's next phase is to see how oxytocin can modify the brain wiring to change social performance. The team is looking for ways on how to make oxytocin treatment a part of autism therapy in children.

"The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting," said Ian Hickie, study co-author and University of Sydney's co-director of the Brain and Mind Center. The team highlighted that their study is a pioneer in showing that a drug treatment has the potential to solve social problems and improve social skills in autistic children.

Health experts expressed cautious remarks on the study findings. Autism Science Foundation's chief science officer Alycia Halladay said that previous studies of oxytocin and autism made use of injections, a procedure that is not practical for chronic management. Halladay conveyed that oxytocin nasal sprays could make this treatment more manageable for many people, however, it should be noted that oxytocin improves only several symptoms of autism, not all. This could be used in partnership with other autism therapies.

The study was published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal on Oct. 27.

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