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Autism Not Caused by Lack of Oxytocin Researchers Say
- Updated: August 5, 2014
Researchers have eliminated one more simple explanation for autism. The idea was that oxytocin levels in autistic children may be lower than in other individuals. Oxytocin is responsible for our feelings of bonding, the desire to be social, and to be trusting of others.
According to the Stanford researcher, Karen Parker, who led the expansive study said, “Our data blew that out of the water.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and discovered that autistic children were no more likely to have low levels of oxytocin in the blood than other children.
The oxytocin deficit theory has been very appealing since a lot of the social difficulties that children with an autism spectrum disorder experience seem to be linked to this important hormone. And there has been some indication that people with autism could see improved social functioning with a little boost of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and affects not only the brain but the body as well. It can help speed up childbirth and strengthens the bond between mother and child. And studies in recent years have shown that oxytocin is released in close relationships to engender deeper feelings of trust and empathy. Thus it has been nicknamed the “love hormone.”
Parker and her team studied the oxytocin levels in around 200 children, including autistic children, their siblings, and non-autistic children. She said, “Our hypothesis going in was thinking the kids with autism would have the lowest oxytocin levels, the siblings would be intermediate and the neurotypical controls would be the highest. That clearly wasn’t the case.”
But, the study actually fond that oxytocin levels were affecting the social functioning in both the kids with autism and those without. Parker remarked, “As your oxytocin levels got higher, your social functioning was more enhanced.”
There also seemed to be a very high genetic influence on the child’s oxytocin levels. The likelihood that a child would have low or high levels of the hormone was dependent on whether their parents had low or high levels.
While not a cause, the findings could explain why some autistic children have responded to oxytocin treatments and others haven’t. According to a genomics researcher, Simon Gregory, with Duke University, “It could be that if a kid has low oxytocin levels then they might benefit.” This researcher was not involved in this particular study but is working with another group studying the effects of oxytocin treatment for autistic people.
Gregory seemed unsurprised at the results of the study, indicating that since autism is a spectrum and not a single disorder it won’t be linked to just one cause. But he added that it is an important study since it was more rigorous and larger than previous research into the subject, which showed conflicting results.
But this study is not the final story on oxytocin and its involvement in autism. The levels that are found in the blood, might be very different than those in the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain. According to Parker, there is already a study under way to investigate that.