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"Love hormone" Oxytocin Nasal Spray May Help Boost Behaviour In Autistic Kids

Update Date: Oct 29, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

There are more things to love about oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" than may be apparent. I helps to ramp up the social skills of autistic children, a small new Australian study suggests.

"The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioral, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting," study co-author Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Center at University of Sydney, said in a university news release, according to cbsnews.

Hence, this interesting love hormone is linked closely to social relationships---such as romantically forming links with a spouse, or a child.

Autism affects one in 68 children, and is defined as a set of "complex brain developmental disorders" is marked by problems in "social interaction, communication, and stereotypical and repetitive behaviors", according to psychcentral.

A number of behavioral therapies tend to improve social, emotional, and behavioral problems, yet they can be time-consuming, taking up almost 40 hours per week. They are not only costly but show mixed results, for which there is no medical treatment.

The latest study gave 31 autistic children, aged 3 to 8 years with nasal sprays twice a day for five weeks.

Scientists said that children who were treated with the nasal spray recorded improvements in their social, emotional and behavioral habits, compared to other children. Those who were treated showed some common side-effects, such as thirst, urination and constipation, according to the researchers.

This study is the first of its kind to show the benefits of drugs on the social skills of autistic children. Hence, the researchers studied oxytocin treatment-related behavioral improvements linked with changes in the brain's social circuitry. It was also important to learn how oxytocin changes brain wiring in order to effect changes in social behavior and how it can be used for therapy.

Reports abc, that Sydney mother Christine Blue is thrilled with its effects.

"By week three and four my husband and I were saying 'yes this is the active ingredient and we are noticing a difference'. By week five we were just really, really pleased with the results," she said.

"He was more willing to be in a group. He was more willing to be involved in a conversation ... He was just a happier child. His eye contact was better. It wasn't perfect but it was better. And he was just talking a whole lot more."

However, it is important to keep in mind that "oxytocin does not improve all symptoms of autism. It should be used in conjunction with other therapies."

Dr. Andrew Adesman is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park. He said that "this well-designed study provides the strongest evidence to date that oxytocin can lead to significant short-term improvements in social responsiveness in young children with autism spectrum disorders."

It is also important to factor that "The benefits were not sustained when these children with autism spectrum disorders were switched [from oxytocin] to a placebo," he said, and "more importantly, we do not know if the benefits can be sustained or increased with longer trials of oxytocin."

Although the study is small, he cautioned that it is important to check whether in the near future, these results are replicated or not, as a number of researchers in the US are pursuing these studies.

It can still not be recommended to autistic children for a while, he said.

"Although parents of children with autism spectrum disorders may be tempted to ask their doctor to prescribe oxytocin nasal spray for their child, it should be remembered that some children did not tolerate this treatment and we need much more information about long-term benefits and safety before this can be recommended as a mainstream treatment approach," Adesman said.

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

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