In a world first, University of Sydney researchers have uncovered a medical treatment for young children with Autism
Oct 28, 2015 | News
Autistic children treated with the hormone oxytocin show marked improvements in sociability, emotional stability and behavior, according to a new Australian study.
The research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, was led by a team from Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre and is thought to be the first evidence of a medical treatment for social impairments in children with autism.
The study saw 31 children aged three to eight years of age receive a twice daily course of oxytocin in the form of a nasal spray.
Researchers found that a five-week treatment with the synthetic hormone significantly improved social, emotional and behavioural issues.
“We used some of the most widely used assessments of social responsiveness for children with autism,” said associate professor Adam Guastella.
“We found that, following oxytocin treatment, parents reported their child to be more socially responsive at home and our own blind independent clinician ratings also supported improved social responsiveness in the therapy rooms of the Brain and Mind Centre.”
It is the first clinical trial to investigate the efficiency, tolerability and safety of intranasal-administered oxytocin in young children with autism, with researchers finding the nasal spray was well tolerated and the most common adverse event events were thirst, urination and constipation.
Study co-author Professor Ian Hickie described the results as “A critical first advance in the development of medical treatments for the social deficits that characterize autism”.
“The potential to use such simple treatments to enhance the longer-term benefits of other behavioural, educational and technology-based therapies is very exciting,” he said.
Autism is a group of complex brain developmental disorders characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and stereotypical and repetitive behaviours.
The diagnosed incidence is estimate to be one in 68 children and effective interventions have remained limited.
There is currently no medical treatment for autism, and while behavioural therapies can improve social, emotional and behavioural issues, they are typically time consuming, expensive and produce mixed outcomes.
This is the first time a medical treatment has shown this type of benefit for children with autism.
The findings stem from a sustained program of research by the team at the Brain and Mind Centre.
Over the last 10 years they have been documenting the benefits of oxytocin in humans, revealing that it enhances eye gaze, emotion recognition and memory across a range of populations.
Professor Hickie says the next goal is to understand exactly how oxytocin changes brain circuitry and to document how related treatments might be used to boost social learning.
The research was largely supported by private foundations, with partial funding from the Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council and a BUPA Health Foundation grant.