Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images.
The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
This combination of scientific work led German researchers to hypothesize about the influence of oxytocin in ASD. Dr. Gregor Domes, from the University of Freiburg and first author of the new study, explained: “In the present study, we were interested in the question of whether a single dose of oxytocin would change brain responses to social compared to non-social stimuli in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.”
They found that oxytocin did show an effect on social processing in the individuals with ASD, “suggesting that oxytocin may help to treat a basic brain function that goes awry in autism spectrum disorders,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.