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Oxytocin shows promise helping social skills in children with autism

A team of researchers at The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre have undergone a five-week treatment using the synthetic hormone oxytocin to improve the social impairments of young children with autism.

Associate professor of the Brain and Mind Centre, Adam Guastella, shared his enthusiasm. “What this study shows is that oxytocin may provide a first medical treatment for autism and that is very exciting,” he said.

The experiment involved 31 children aged 3–8 who received the hormone oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray twice a day. The results showed an improvement in social skills of children with autism.

In Australia, 1 in 6 children are diagnosed with autism and their social interaction and communication skills are affected. The behavioural therapy found that children receiving the oxytocin treatment were more socially responsive at home and in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.

Guastella said the new study is the first evidence of medical treatment for social impairments and the first clinical trial to investigate how oxytocin stimulates change. The research showed improvements in social, emotional and behavioural issues in children with autism.

“What we found was that caregivers reported more eye gaze, responsiveness in social situations, greater ability to interact and to be motivated to engage with social situations,” Guastella said.

Guastella explained how his team would develop the oxytocin treatment further. “We’re looking at how oxytocin works and what parts of the brain oxytocin targets to cause its effect,” he said. “By doing mechanism research, we can … potentially even introduce behavioural environmental intervention, which activates the same circuits.”

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