Hormones And Behavior: Possible Implications of Oxytocin For The Treatment of Autism
Ongoing research every day is looking for new pathways to help children and adults with autism. Although some of the rumors regarding the research are either rumors or just junk science, others hold some potential truth. The concept behind hormonal treatments and causes for and of autism have suggested that the slight chemical imbalances that already exist in the autistic brain could benefit from more natural therapeutic approaches, or the pharmacological equivalent thereof.
More recently, the idea that oxytocin, a natural biochemical in the human body responsible for many functions, could help children with autism emotionally, and possibly, even psychologically. To better understand the implications, people need to first understand what oxytocin is, what it does, and how it can affect most human brains.
Oxytocin is a peptide, which isn’t the same as a hormone per se. Those who know a little something about it think that it is a hormone simply because it’s secreted from the posterior lobe of that master gland, the pituitary. Since the pituitary gland controls all of the body’s other endocrine and exocrine glands, the glands that produce hormones in the body, it is often argued that the chemicals the pituitary manufactures are hormones as well.
The primary purpose of oxytocin is to bring people physically closer. The minute a body encounters touch from another it continues to seek out touch and a desire to touch another. This plays out rather well in physical intimacy between partners, but it also is meant as a means for mother and child to bond, and eventually fathers to connect to their progeny. With children who have autism, and have no desire to be touched at all, there appears to be a malfunction in either the production of oxytocin or the reception of positive emotions connected to physical bonding.
The secondary purpose of oxytocin aids women during childbirth. It is responsible for the contractions women feel while simultaneously activating pain reducing hormones in the body that help women forget labor. Once the baby is out, oxytocin continues to ride high so that the baby and mother can bond and breastfeeding is as natural as it gets. If the mother has induced labor pharmacologically, a manmade peptide called pitocin is introduced intravenously. It does everything oxytocin does, except that the doses are more controllable because they are introduced to the body from the outside.
Since there seems to be a normal amount of this peptide at birth because autistic children do not become distant until after the onset of autism at age two, controversial new data suggests that there is somehow a correlation between the physical dejection trait in some children with autism and a decrease or drop off of oxytocin. There’s also a camp of thinkers that believes it has more to due with the oxytocin receptors rather than the amount of oxytocin being produced.
In any case, it is scientifically proven that human touch is necessary for a child’s overall well being. Touch deprivation not only decreases an infant’s survival rate, as seen in many orphanages around the world, but also decreases the amount of oxytocin their own bodies produce. Once a child has little oxytocin of their own, they begin to cry and become physically attuned to their own emotional pain. Months after the initial deprivation has started, they die. Although it isn’t ethical for such studies to be conducted, scientists have been able to gather data based on infants left to cry in cribs all day long in places where there aren’t enough nurses to care for them.
That critical piece of information makes it even more necessary to find a connection between the child with autism who does not want to be hugged or held and helping them find comfortable ground on which to thrive. It also helps parents of autistic children feel better about the fact that, as much as they want to hold their children, it isn’t them that is causing the children’s issues with growth and emotional contentedness. The research now is looking at introducing either biochemically reproduced “twin peptides”, chemicals that exactly replicate the patient’s own oxytocin, or the use of pitocin, to get an autistic child to want to be close to his or her parents.
The idea is that the child’s own mass produced and exactly replicated oxytocin reintroduced to the body through a series of shots would encourage him or her to hug and be hugged and allow for kisses as signs of affection. Children who give and receive affection thrive far better, and this would give children with autism the opportunity to feel more happy, content, and less anxious or depressed, which can be common for them. It helps parents too, because they are able to give and receive affection to their autistic children, thus reducing the negative feelings they may encounter when dealing with their children’s more difficult and challenging behaviors. Being able to soothe each other through this one peptide helps everyone’s health, not just the autistic child.
The one down side to the oxytocin therapy is that it would have to be lifelong, as oxytocin and/or pitocin fades in the bloodstream. Pitocin would stick around a little longer because the body needs more time to break it down, but it doesn’t work quite as well as the child’s own oxytocin. Because the jury is still out on what this study actually means, it may be a couple of decades before scientists can safely say that it’s a therapy that does work and will work for every child diagnosed with autism, and then additional time before the FDA would approve it in the U.S.