Love hormone ‘helps autistic brain’

Child with autism

The “love hormone” oxytocin alters the brain activity of children with autism and makes them more social, according to US researchers.

The role of the hormone in helping children with autism has been debated, with studies showing conflicting data.

Brain scans, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hint that there is an effect.

The National Autistic Society said research on oxytocin as a treatment was still in its infancy.

What is autism?

  • Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of disorders that can cause difficulties with communication and social skills
  • The conditions can lead to isolation and emotional problems for those living with them
  • Conditions can vary from very mild, where the person can function as well as anyone else, to so severe they cannot take part in normal society
  • The conditions are collectively known as autistic spectrum disorders and affect more than 580,000 people in the UK

Oxytocin is naturally produced by the body, triggers labour and is involved in mother and baby bonding.

Seventeen children with autism, aged between eight and 16, were given two nasal spray – one containing oxytocin, the other no drugs at all.

After taking each one, the impact on brain activity was recorded in a scanner while the children were shown “social” pictures of human faces or “non-social” pictures of cars.

The parts of the brain normally associated with social situations appeared more active after the children had been given oxytocin.


One of the researchers, Prof Kevin Pelphrey, told the BBC: “We are very excited by the findings, all 17 showed a response, although the response was variable.

“There’s still lots of questions about oxytocin, but this suggests it enhances social brain functions and decreases non-social functions – helping kids to focus on socially relevant information.”

Larger trials are taking place to see what the side-effects and benefits of oxytocin might be in children with autism.

Exactly how the drug should be used is still up for debate, with some suggestions that it would be best used as an aid during current behavioural therapy rather than as a daily medication.

Prof Pelphrey said some parents were giving the drug to their children without medical advice and this was a “terrible idea”.

“It might have no effect or it might cause damage,” he said.

However, he added: “The most exciting finding is not oxytocin, but that you can show changes in the brain by a compound.

“It changes how we think of autism and how treatable it might be.”

Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s centre for autism, said: “Research investigating the impact oxytocin can have on people with autism is still in its very early stages.

“While the findings of this particular study are interesting, no hard and fast conclusions should be drawn.

“Autism is a very complex disability and can present a variety of challenges that extend beyond social difficulties.

“It’s crucial that those living with the condition have all their needs assessed so that they can access the appropriate support.”

Autism detectable ‘in first months’

An early indication of autism can be identified in babies under six months old, a study suggests.

US researchers, writing in Nature, analysed how infants looked at faces from birth to the age of three.

They found children later diagnosed with autism initially developed normally but showed diminished eye contact – a hallmark of autism – between two and six months of age.

A UK expert said the findings raise hope for early interventions.

In the study, researchers led by Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta used eye-tracking technology to measure the way babies looked at and responded to social clues.

“Start Quote

These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development”

Dr Deborah Riby Durham University

They found infants later diagnosed with autism had shown a steady decline in attention to the eyes of other people from the age of two months onwards, when watching videos of natural human interactions.

Lead researcher Dr Warren Jones told BBC News: “It tells us for the first time that it’s possible to detect some signs of autism in the first months of life.

“These are the earliest signs of autism that we’ve ever observed.”

The study, in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, followed 59 infants who had a high risk of autism because they had siblings with the life-long condition, and 51 infants at low risk.

Dr Jones and colleague Dr Ami Klin followed them to the age of three, when the children were formally assessed for autism.

Thirteen of the children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders – a range of disorders that includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome – 11 boys and two girls.

The researchers then went back to look at the eye-tracking data, and what they found was surprising.

“In infants with autism, eye contact is declining already in the first six months of life,” said Dr Jones.

But he added this could be seen only with sophisticated technology and would not be visible to parents.

“It’s not something that parents would be able to see by themselves at all. If parents have concerns they should talk to their paediatrician.”

Dr Deborah Riby, of the department of psychology at Durham University, said the study provided an insight into the timing of atypical social attention in children who might go on to develop autism.

Autism spectrum disorders

  • Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of related developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • They begin in childhood and last through adulthood.
  • ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are grouped into three categories including problems with social interaction, impaired communication skills and unusual patterns of thought and behaviour

Source: NHS Choices

“These early markers are extremely important for us to identify – the earlier we can diagnose a child who has one of these disorders – such as autism – the earlier we can provide intervention and development,” she said.

Kay Hinton/Emory University

Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said the research was “based on a very small sample and needs to be replicated on a far larger scale before any concrete conclusions can be drawn”.

“Autism is a very complex condition,” she said.

“No two people with autism are the same, and so a holistic approach to diagnosis is required that takes into account all aspects of an individual’s behaviour. A more comprehensive approach allows all of a person’s support needs to be identified.

“It’s vital that everyone with autism can access a diagnosis, as it can be key to unlocking the right support which can enable people with the condition to reach their full potential.”

Grandparents ‘may relay autism risk to grandchildren’.




The risk of developing autism may be passed on through – and not just to – future generations, researchers say.

The international study suggests older fathers are more likely to have grandchildren with autism than their younger counterparts.

The mechanism is unclear but it is thought they may transmit “silent mutations” to their grandchildren.

But experts have urged caution, stressing autism is the result of many different factors.

The study, looking at almost 6,000 people with the condition, is published in the journal Jama Psychiatry.

According to the National Autistic Society, more than one in every 100 people in the UK have the condition.

Previous studies suggested older fathers may be at greater risk of having children with autism than younger dads.

But the team of UK, Swedish and Australian researchers say this is one of the first pieces of evidence to show the risk can be passed on through – rather than just straight to – future generations.

Continue reading the main story

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We can’t put exact figures on this risk yet. But most children born to older fathers and grandfathers grow up fine”

Dr Avi ReichenbergCo-author of study

The “silent mutations” – changes in genetic material – are likely to have no obvious impact on older fathers’ own children, but they may build up through subsequent generations, or interact with other genes and environmental factors, to increase the chance of their grandchildren developing the condition, the researchers say.

Using national databases from Sweden they studied almost 6,000 people diagnosed with the condition and more than 30,000 without, tracking their parents’ and grandparents’ ages.

They found men who had a daughter when aged 50 or older were 1.79 times more likely to have a grandchild with autism, compared to men who fathered children when aged between 20-24.

And those who had a son when 50 years of age or older were 1.67 times more likely to have a grandchild with the condition.

‘Complex causes’

But they say this study should not discourage older people from having children as though the risk is increased, it still remains small.

Co-author of the study, Dr Avi Reichenberg from King’s College Institute of Psychiatry, told the BBC: “It is about choices. If you choose to have a child at an old age there might be consequences. This is something everyone should consider.



  • People with autism usually have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination
  • It is a spectrum condition meaning while all people with autism share certain difficulties, the condition affects them differently
  • There are more than 500,000 people with autism in the UK – that’s one in every 100
  • There is no cure, but there are a range of interventions available

Source: NHS Choices

“Unfortunately we can’t put exact figures on this risk yet. But most children born with older fathers and grandfathers grow up fine.

“And as scientists this type of information helps open doors to understanding more about the condition.”

Caroline Hattersley, of The National Autistic Society, said: “While this research is useful in aiding our understanding of autism’s complex causes, it should be treated with caution.

“Autism is thought to be the result of many different underlying physical and genetic factors.

“The study is not definitive, as we know that many people who had children at a young age also have grandchildren with the condition. We therefore urge parents and those thinking of starting a family not to be concerned about the findings.”

Dr Terry Brugha, professor of psychiatry at the University of Leicester who was not involved in the study, said: “This is a solid piece of work and the findings are plausible. But as a grandparent or parent-to-be this is not something to be overly concerned about.

“We are at the early stages of research and this study gives us a slightly deeper understanding of what is going on in the background.”