Could the 'cuddle hormone' offer a treatment for autism?
Published Sunday, August 11, 2013 9:35PM EDT
Canadian researchers are starting to recruit patients for a new study to see whether oxytocin -- sometimes call the "cuddle hormone" -- could help with some of the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Oxytocin is a hormone released to induce labour, help with milk let-down during breastfeeding and to help mothers bond with their babies.
Researchers at Toronto's Holland Bloorview have received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to run a randomized clinical trial to see if oxytocin can also help improve social functioning in kids and teens with autism.
People with autism seem to produce less of the hormone, so researchers hope to learn whether supplementing it through a nasal spray can help.
Twelve-year-old Gabriel Penner has just taken part in a pilot study of the unusual treatment. He says he sometimes struggles connecting with others -- one of the symptoms of his Asperger's Syndrome.
"I don't tend to interact with other people so much, generally, and I think being more social is definitely a good thing," he says.
After having Gabriel take the oxytocin nasal spray as part of the study, his mother says she noticed a difference.
"He was more interested and engaging with other people. And he was more affectionate with me and wanting to hug me and kiss me and that sort of thing," she says.
"I really liked that. What mom doesn't love more hugs and kisses?" she adds with a laugh.
Gabriel himself isn't so sure it made much of a difference.
"I didn't notice any difference but I think other people did," he says. "…People told me 'Oh Gabriel, you are more social lately,' and stuff like that."
Penner was one 15 youths between the ages of 10 and 18 who took part in the pilot study, which has not yet been published. Researcher Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou says her team was pleased with the results.
"About two-thirds responded, meaning they had positive effects in terms of their social function and anxiety. They seem to be more engaged and more socially motivated and their anxiety overall went down," she told CTV News.
The study didn't compare the oxytocin spray against a placebo spray, which is what the team will do in the next phase of study.
There are currently no medications to treat autism symptoms, but Anagnostou says this study raises the possibility.
"Up to now, when we use medication, we treat associated symptoms -- hyperactivity, inattention, aggression, anxiety -- but we haven't been able to treat the social communication deficits and the repetitive behaviours -- what makes autism, autism," she says.
"This type of experiment gives us hope that we can manipulate some biological systems to get improvement in the core symptoms of autism," she says
The research team's hope is mixed with caution. There have been varied results from other studies looking at oxytocin on those with autism, with some studies showing the treatment failed to have any effect on many test subjects.
Dr. Lane Strathearn, a specialist in neurodevelopmental disabilities at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex., says his best hope for these studies is that they will help offer more clues about what is actually happening in the brains of those with autism.
"I don't think for one moment that spraying oxytocin up noses is going to cure autism, but I think it helps us understand what some of the biological mechanism behind autism might be," he says.
The Canadian team hopes to have results in about two years on whether the cuddle hormone could become one of the first drug treatments for autism.
Those interested in participating in the upcoming study can contact clinical research assistant Lisa Genore at: 416-425-6220 ext. 6443, or email@example.com.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip