Making the brain take notice of faces in autism

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 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 , 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 to social compared to non-social stimuli in individuals with ."

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 that goes awry in autism spectrum disorders," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

To conduct this study, they recruited fourteen individuals with ASD and fourteen control volunteers, all of whom completed a face- and house-matching task while undergoing imaging scans. Each participant completed this task and scanning procedure twice, once after receiving a nasal spray containing oxytocin and once after receiving a nasal spray containing placebo. The order of the sprays was randomized, and the tests were administered one week apart.

Using two sets of stimuli in the matching task, one of faces and one of houses, allowed the researchers to not only compare the effects of the oxytocin and placebo administrations, but also allowed them to discriminate findings between specific effects to only social stimuli and non-specific effects to more general brain processing.

What they found was intriguing. The data indicate that oxytocin specifically increases responses of the amygdala to social stimuli in individuals with ASD. The amygdala, the authors explain, "has been associated with processing of emotional stimuli, threat-related stimuli, face processing, and vigilance for salient stimuli".

This finding suggests oxytocin might promote the salience of social stimuli in ASD. Increased salience of social stimuli might support behavioral training of social skills in ASD.

These data support the idea that oxytocin may be a promising approach in the treatment of ASD and could stimulate further research, even clinical trials, on the exploration of oxytocin as an add-on treatment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

More information: Domes, G. et al. Effects of Intranasal Oxytocin on the Neural Basis of Face Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Biological Psychiatry, Volume 74, Issue 3 (August 1, 2013). DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.02.007

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

No oxytocin benefit for autism

Jul 18, 2013

The so-called trust hormone, oxytocin, may not improve the symptoms of children with autism, a large study led by UNSW researchers has found.

Oxytocin improves brain function in children with autism

May 21, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- Preliminary results from an ongoing, large-scale study by Yale School of Medicine researchers shows that oxytocin — a naturally occurring substance produced in the brain and throughout ...

Recommended for you

Association between air toxics and childhood autism

8 hours ago

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers' pregnancies and the first two years of life compared to children ...

A tool enhances social inclusion for people with autism

Oct 15, 2014

The University of Alicante has developed, together with centres in the UK, Spain and Bulgaria, a tool designed to assist people with autism spectrum disorders by adapting written documents into a format that ...

User comments