The progress in medical science continues to provide us with new hope in the form of advanced treatment methods and innovative approaches to treating several diseases that are still raising the greatest concerns in our modern health landscape. Aside from the application of therapies and the use synthetic drugs, the latest medical research findings also suggest the effectiveness of natural body chemicals in the possibility of treating these health problems. A good example of this case would be the hormone oxytocin and its positive effect on the social skills development of autistic children, as found out from a clinical trial conducted on this specific subset of individuals in the spectrum.

About Oxytocin

The premise of this study is centered upon the very function of oxytocin in human physiology. Called as the “love hormone”, oxytocin is secreted in the pituitary gland when a person shares a bonding moment with another to further enhance social interaction. The hormone’s effect cannot only be seen in humans but even in animals as well. This led many researchers to believe that oxytocin can indeed be a possible chemical treatment for autism. While this is without a doubt an exciting development, this proposition about the use of oxytocin is not new in medical research. As a matter of fact, there are already several trials conducted in the past to prove this assumption, but the findings were inconsistent that arriving at a good and credible conclusion became impossible. Several trials came up with positive findings, while some others claimed that no benefits can be derived from oxytocin use. But instead of throwing this premise out of the window, researchers have found an alternative route in this experiment, thinking that the inconsistency in the past findings provided a clue that only a specific age group of autistic people respond positively to oxytocin treatment, which specifically refers to children.

The new study was co-led by Karen Parker, an associate professor of Psychiatry at Standford University. Her team was also the one who came up with the 2014 research findings showing that children who have more oxytocin in their blood levels exhibited higher social skills compared to those with relatively low oxytocin content. Their new trial focuses on determining the effectiveness of oxytocin treatment in relation to the content level of the same hormone in the children’s body prior to the trial. It is then found that the lower the pre-trial oxytocin hormone content, the more effective the treatment were in children, equating to more improvement in social engagement.

According to Parker, her team aims to provide a more precise approach in dealing with the treatment as it shows great potential in helping autistic children improve in social interactions. She pointed out that the past trials may have failed because of many variables that were not controlled enough, such as the original oxytocin levels in the tested children, who may have all contained high levels of oxytocin even before the treatment thus thinning out the possibility of positive results. Having considered these variables in their trial made Parker’s team the first to come up with a new biomarker for autism treatment. This claim is also backed by other experts in the field who were not involved in the study, including Adam Guastella, who is a Psychology professor at the Brain and Mind Centre of the University of Sydney.

About the Research

There was a total of 34 autistic children who participated in the study, with the consent and cooperation of their parents. The children were aged 6 to 12, and the oxytocin treatment lasted for four weeks. Throughout the course of the treatment, the parents were instructed to administer oxytocin nasal spray to their kids twice a day. Among the participants, 18 were provided with the placebo treatment while 16 were given the oxytocin-containing nasal spray. On the oxytocin-treated group, 2 participants dropped out later and were not able to complete the treatment. In terms of evaluation and assessment, the team recorded both the pre-trial and post-trial oxytocin content in the children’s blood and assessed the improvement in social interaction with the use of Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and other tests to measure changes in anxiety levels and repetitive behaviors.

If the results were based on the SRS scores alone, there is little to no significant improvement that can be assessed in the participants. However, after coming up with a statistical model which considers the oxytocin levels of the children before the treatment, the team found out that those who received the oxytocin nasal spray treatment showed a better response than the placebo group, with those with the lowest level of original oxytocin content showing the most improvement in social skills. There is also a sign of improvement in social skills exhibited by the placebo group who the team believes are also able to get a boost of oxytocin through behavioral intervention and other means during the course of the treatment. Aside from social skills, there are, however, no significant improvements observed in areas of repetitive behaviors and anxiety levels. On a more positive note, the treatment also showed little to no side effects.

Future Implications

After the findings were published, many researchers and experts have shared their opinions and suggestions that they think would help improve other aspects of the study that still needs more thorough control and implementation, for future reference of supplementary research.

On the oxytocin level control:

While the team may have been able to control the level of oxytocin present in the participants’ system to deal with the variability, many are still unconvinced with the findings concerning the boost of oxytocin in the placebo group. According to Linmarie Sikich from the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development,  this change in the oxytocin level may be caused by other natural factors while the participants are still undergoing the treatment and may not really be connected to the research.

On long-term effects:

According to Antonio Hardan who is also the team’s co-lead, the research also did not include the long-term effects of oxytocin nasal spray treatment in autistic people which is very important if there really is a plan for wide and long-term application of this treatment.