Study on role of hormone oxytocin in causing autism
2 March 2009
A research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine and
Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in the US is recruiting autistic and
typically developing children for a study of whether the hormone
oxytocin plays a role in causing the disorder.
The researchers will test whether impaired social behaviours in
autism are linked to levels of the hormone. In healthy individuals,
oxytocin primes maternal behaviour, enhances social interactions,
increases the ability to read facial expressions and recognize
individuals, and boosts trust and empathy. Preliminary research has
hinted that autism may be associated with oxytocin deficits, but those
studies involved limited samples.
“We’re hoping to find a biomarker for autism,” said lead researcher
Karen Parker, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural
sciences at Stanford.
Parker and colleagues will study 50 children ages 3 to 12 who have
been diagnosed with autism; 50 of their healthy siblings, some of whom
may have moderate social or emotional impairments; and 50
typically-developing children who do not have siblings with or a family
history of autism.
The researchers will test whether oxytocin signalling falls on a
spectrum that matches variations in social behaviours. If the findings
show a correlation between oxytocin and behaviour, further research will
be needed to determine whether a causal relationship exists.
Autistic and 'typical' social behaviours exist on a continuous
spectrum, Parker explained. That means children diagnosed with autism
have varied degrees of social and emotional impairment, and
typically-developing children also vary in their social and emotional
function. The researchers hope that participants in the study will
represent the whole of the behavioural spectrum.
Children in the study will complete an IQ test and several standard
psychological and behavioural tests. Each child will give one blood
sample, which will be used to measure oxytocin levels and to look for
tiny variations in the gene that encodes the oxytocin receptor. The
researchers suspect such gene variations change how the oxytocin signal
is transmitted, and will test whether certain variations might be
characteristic of autism.
Parker is collaborating with child psychiatrist Antonio Hardan, MD,
director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Packard
Children’s Hospital, and Joachim Hallmayer, MD, associate professor of
psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford. The study is funded by
a two-year, $300,000 award from the Simons Foundation Autism Research
“There’s a real need to recognize that autism is a biological
disorder,” Parker said. “Right now, we spend millions of dollars on care
for these kids, but we have no proper treatments.” If her team’s work
confirms an oxytocin-autism link, it could lead to development of a
blood test for autism, raising the possibility of earlier and more
effective treatment for the disorder, Parker said.
She also speculated that her research might show whether oxytocin or
similar compounds could be used as autism treatments, or as
prophylactics to prevent full-blown autism in children who show early
signs of the disorder.
“Having the tools to begin treatment earlier would constitute a huge
quality-of-life improvement for these kids,” she said. Parker noted that
families with healthy children are much needed as volunteers for the
research. “We can’t do this study in the absence of a comparison group,”
Participating in the research is a concrete way for families with
typically-developing, healthy children to help those who are struggling
to raise a child with autism, she said. And all parents in the study
will get to learn about their own child’s makeup. “Parents might think,
‘Wow, I have a super-social child. I’m curious about the biology of
that,’” Parker said. “We’ll be able to give them information they could
never get from a typical doctor’s office visit, since oxytocin
measurements and behavioural assessments are not routinely performed in
Bookmark this page