In a study by Angela Sirigu and colleagues of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon, 13 people with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders inhaled the hormone oxytocin, known to be low in some people with autism and often used to help breast-feeding mothers bond with their children, before taking part in two experiments.
The participants, 11 men and two women, had no medication two weeks before the study, which included a control group of an equal number of healthy men and women. The researchers watched the patients' responses during a virtual ball tossing game to measure behavioral changes. In a separate experiment, Sirigu's team measured how patients responded to facial expression when shown pictures of human faces
They found patients who inhaled the oxytocin paid more attention to expressions when looking at pictures of faces and were more likely to understand social cues in the game simulation.
Sirigu said oxytocin could help autism patients who have normal intellectual functions and fairly good language abilities because it improves eye contact which is usually considered to be the first step in social approach. But people with autism often avoid looking at others. The oxytocin enhanced eye contact because patients spent more time looking at the eyes. It also appears to improve the ability of people with autism to understand how other people respond to them so that they can learn the appropriate response to others' behaviour.
The research was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Courtesy of Reuters
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First Published in March 2010
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