Oxytocin Nasal Spray for Autism?

It is common for people suffering from autism to find basic social interactions difficult; looking people in the eye, for instance, is often a challenge, as is determining a person’s trustworthiness.  New research suggests that these two symptoms can be improved with the inhalation of the hormone Oxytocin – dubbed the ‘love hormone’.

In a new study in Biological Psychiatry, an Australian team of autism researchers recruited adolescents with Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) as part of a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover design trial. [1] Subjects received a single dose each of oxytocin or placebo via a nasal spray; both times, the subjects were asked to complete a facial expression task that measures emotion recognition.

Compared to administration of the placebo spray, those receiving the oxytocin spray were better at recognising emotions from facial expressions. This study provides the first evidence that oxytocin nasal spray improves emotion recognition in young people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Due to the small sample size it is likely that more research is needed before such a treatment is endorsed.

In the meantime, the common course of treatment will likely continue in the form of antipsychotics, for treating behavioural problems associated with the condition, including aggression, self-harming behaviour and severe tantrums. Increasing evidence suggests, however, that some antipsychotics may be associated with adverse cardiovascular side effects and arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms) which, if severe enough, can lead to sudden cardiac death. [2]

ASD affects more than 500,000 people in the UK. These neurodevelopment disorders include both autism and Asperger syndrome, involving severely impaired behaviour, communication and social skills.  Children with autism also frequently have problems with verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as difficulties with social interaction, lack of imagination and creative play.

Unlike people with Asperger syndrome, who can often lead relatively normal lives, individuals with autism are usually more severely disabled and show quite severe symptoms.  Autistic children can often become hyperactive and aggressive, with seizures common in around 15 to 30 per cent of individuals. In these cases, children are often treated with antipsychotics.

According to a group of Brazilian researchers, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in ASD patients treated with atypical antipsychotic drugs may reduce cardiac arrhythmias and hence the risk of sudden cardiac death. [3] Using omega-3 EPA fish oil as an ‘add-on’ supplement could therefore help to protect vulnerable individuals from the adverse side effects associated with pharmaceutical drugs that are so commonly prescribed.

The omega-3EPA, in particular, is also gaining much interest for its role in regulating neurotransmitters.  Already praised for its role in safely regulating and alleviating the symptoms associated with many mental health disorders – including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression as well as a number of neurodevelopmental disorders – it has a role in the management of ASD symptoms. Indeed long-chain fatty acids play a crucial role in learning, memory and behaviour via direct effects on brain function, including the regulation of neurotransmitters, and also indirectly on the expression of genes in the brain. Daily supplementation with EPA can result in improvements in overall health, cognition, sleep patterns, social interactions, eye contact and anxiety.


[1] Guastella A.J. et al. (2010). Intranasal oxytocin improves emotion recognition for youth with autism spectrum disorders. Biological Psychiatry. 67(7), pp. 692-694.

[2] Karlsson J, Wallerstedt SM, Star K, Bate A, Hägg S. (2009) Sudden cardiac death in users of second-generation antipsychotics. J Clin Psychiatry. 70:1725-6.

[3] Cysneiros RM, Terra VC, Machado HR, Arida RM, Schwartzman JS, Cavalheiro EA, Scorza FA. (2009) May the best friend be an enemy if not recognized early: possible role of omega-3 against cardiovascular abnormalities due antipsychotics in the treatment of autism.  Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 67:922-6.

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