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New research has shown that a five week treatment with synthetic oxytocin has significantly improved social, behavioral and emotional issues in young children with autism. The research was done by the University of Sydney and published in Molecular Psychiatry.
The study was performed by a team of researchers from the University’s Brain and Mind Centre. It is believed to be the first time evidence supports medical treatment for social impairments in children who have autism. This study is also the first time that clinical efficacy, safety and tolerability have been tested using intranasal-administered oxytocin in young autistic children.
Autism is a condition involving a group of complex brain developmental disorders that are characterized by impairments of social, communication, stereotypical and repetitive behaviors. Autism is diagnosed in one of every 68 children and effective treatments and interventions are extremely limited.
Sometimes behavioral therapies can be effective for improving social, behavioral and emotional impairments, but generally these methods are time consuming, expensive and show limited improvements. There are currently no medical treatment options available for the treatment of autism.
In the most recent study, the team studied 31 children ages three to eight years old. The children in the study received oxytocin via the intranasal route two times per day.
Dr. Adam Guastella an associate professor at the Brain and Mind Centre states, “We used some of the most widely used assessments of social responsiveness for children with autism.”
He further states, “We found that following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their children to be more socially responsive at home and our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.”
Overall, the children tolerated the oxytocin nasal spray well and the most common adverse effects were increased thirst and urination and constipation.
This is the very first time a medical treatment for autism has shown promise and benefits. The findings of the study reinforces outcomes from a longer sustained program of research by the University’s team.
In the past decade, the Brain and Mind Centre researchers have been studying and documenting the benefits of oxytocin in humans, revealing that it improves eye gaze, emotion recognition and cognitive abilities across a range of different populations.
Another co-author of the study, Professor Ian Hickie noted the newest results were a critical first step in the development of medical treatments for autism.
He states, “The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology based therapies is very exciting.”
The next step for the research team is to determine exactly how oxytocin changes brain circuitry in people with autism and to document how related treatments could be used to boost established social learning interventions.
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