Findings from study believed to be largest of its kind contradict smaller studies showing treatment’s promise
Regular doses of the hormone oxytocin do not appear to overcome deficits in social functioning among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), suggests a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings contradict earlier reports that indicated the hormone could alleviate the difficulties in social functioning characteristic of ASD. Oxytocin is associated with empathy and social bonding. The study was conducted by Linmarie Sikich, M.D., of Duke University, and colleagues. It appears in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Funding was provided by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
ASD is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in life and affects how a person interacts with others, communicates and learns. Many individuals with ASD have been prescribed oxytocin by their physicians. Several small studies have tested the potential of oxytocin to improve social functioning in ASD but have produced inconsistent results.
For the current study, which the authors believe is the largest of its kind to date, oxytocin was given daily for 24 weeks by nasal spray to children with ASD who are minimally or fluently verbal. Participants ranged from 3 to 17 years old. Of those completing the study, 139 received oxytocin and 138 received a placebo. During the study, participants’ caregivers rated them on a questionnaire measuring irritability, social withdrawal and other behaviors associated with ASD. When the participants completed the trial, the differences between the two groups’ initial score and last score did not differ significantly. The researchers concluded that the 24-week course of oxytocin did not improve social interaction or other measures of social function related to ASD.
Alice Kau, Ph.D., NICHD Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch, is available for comment.
Sikich, L., et al. Intranasal oxytocin in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. New England Journal of Medicine. 2021.
About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): NICHD leads research and training to understand human development, improve reproductive health, enhance the lives of children and adolescents, and optimize abilities for all. For more information, visit https://www.nichd.nih.gov.
About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit https://www.nih.gov.