Heath experts who have come out with a new large-scale study have said that an intranasal form of oxytocin hormone might not be more effective than a placebo. The study has found that the intranasal form of oxytocin might not be potent enough to promote social behaviors among children who are dealing with autism. Many scientists have been considering oxytocin as a candidate for treating autism due to its role in promoting social bonds for more than 10 years. Some small trials have shown that oxytocin might be effective in improving social skills in some autistic people who are identified with low levels of oxytocin and infants who are suffering from Prader-Willi syndrome. Experts have said that Prader-Willi syndrome is a condition linked to autism. However, the findings of the study have shown that oxytocin especially in its existing form might not be helpful for most children who are dealing with autism. A lecturer of pediatrics from the University of Toronto in Canada, Evdokia Anagnostou as well has supported the findings of the study. The expert has not been involved in the study. Scientists have said that the study might be the largest clinical trial that has been done on oxytocin treatment for autism to date. The lead author of the study, Dr. Linmarie Sikich has said that though findings have nullified the effectiveness of oxytocin, some people might still feel that the treatment might be helpful for many people who are dealing with autism. The findings of the study have been released in a journal known as the New England Journal of Medicine. A senior scientist of biological psychiatry from the University of Oslo in Norway, Daniel Quintana has said that such types of studies are vulnerable to publication bias, in which non-significant findings have fewer odds of being published as compared to significant results. Therefore, the new study appears to be a crucial contribution to the field. However, the findings of the study do not suggest putting the idea of using intranasal oxytocin as autism treatment to rest. Daniel Quintana has not been involved in the study.
The authors of the study have enrolled nearly 250 autistic children who have been in the age range of 3 to 17 years. Some have the participants have been given intranasal oxytocin spray and some of them have been kept on placebo for 24 weeks. Initially, children have been given a low dose of oxytocin administered once each day. Experts have said that if children have been able to tolerate the low dose, they have slowly switched to a higher dose two times a day. Thereafter, parents of these children have reported the social behaviors of their children via a series of questionnaires at standard intervals. As per an adapted part of the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, participants of both groups have shown some progress in their social behaviors. The aberrant Behavior Checklist has been a key measuring tool of the trial for outcomes. These improvements have lasted for the rest of the trial. The Pervasive Development Disorders Behavior Inventory and the Social Responsive Scale have measured that there has been improvement in sociability and motivation as well in both groups. The authors of the study have said that the findings of the study have been unchanged by the age of participants, their verbal abilities, and the levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. The lead author Evdokia Anagnostou has said that treating the disease with just oxytocin might not be enough. However, she has said that there is a possibility that the drug might improve other facets of social functions such as affiliation, cognition, reward, and association. These aspects might not be highlighted by the questionnaires that have been used in the trial.
Last month, a small study on intranasal oxytocin in children who have been dealing with Phelan-McDermid syndrome has shown no impact of the drug on social traits that have been reported by parents. The Phelan-McDermid syndrome is a neurological issue that can lead to autism. Experts have said that the field is struggling with the issue of measuring the social behavior of autistic children and it is still not resolved. The head of the Translational Center for Neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, Larry Young has said that the study has found more about how oxytocin affects the brain. He has said that the idea about how the hormone impacts the social behaviors of children has shifted with the new findings. He has said that the hormone does not improve sociability among such children in general. However, it shoots up the salience of stimuli that helps patients to learn and perceive things from facial expressions and body actions in a better way. Larry Young has said that combining the hormone treatment with other kinds of behavior training might be more effective. The lead author has claimed that due to the heterogeneity of the disease, some people with autism might get some benefits from oxytocin. It is possible that children enrolled in the trial might be suffering from different forms of autism that might have affected the findings. She has said that there is a need for further research to find out whether giving oxytocin intranasally is the most effective way to send the drug into the brain. It is uncertain how the brain takes up the hormone when it is delivered intranasally. Anagnostou has said that it will be more effective to use a compound of the hormone that can trigger oxytocin receptors or a paralleled system in the brain rather than flossing the brain with oxytocin. She has claimed that experts need to know whether oxytocin is the only way to control the brain or they can use some other strategies as well.