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'Cuddle hormone' oxytocin can stimulate brain activity in autistic children

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Could there be an inhaler for autism? That's a legitimate question. For years, researchers have studied the possibility that a hormone called oxytocin could help autistic people better understand social interactions. Often known as the "love hormone" or "cuddle hormone" for its ability to bring out feelings of empathy and trust in individuals — not to mention its roles in orgasm and childbirth — scientists discovered that autistic adults who took a few puffs of oxytocin could better identify emotions in others.

Now, it appears that oxytocin might be effective in autistic children, too. The Yale Child Study Center conducted an experiment with 17 children suffering from autism spectrum disorder, and found that oxytocin made a difference in brain activity when the children were confronted with a basic social skills test. When asked to identify emotions based on pictures of people's eyes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy lit up more than when the children took a placebo instead. Moreover, when they were asked to identify pieces of vehicles, a test deemed to be less emotional, those kids inhaling oxytocin also had decreased brain activity in those brain regions compared to the placebo.

But don't spray your kids just yet

While the results seem promising, it's probably too early to go out and buy an oxytocin inhaler just yet. For one thing, The New York Times reports that the children didn't actually perform any better on the social-emotional test with additional oxytocin in their system. For another, researchers say they don't know what the long-term effects of oxytocin might be. "I don't want a wave of parents now giving their children oxytocin," study co-author Dr. Ilanit Gordon told the Times. "We're not seeing that giving oxytocin equals treating autism, not yet." However, it won't be long until the scientific community has at least one such long-term study under its belt. In order to find out whether oxytocin is safe and effective over the long term, a federally funded national clinical trial will administer daily doses of the hormone to 300 children, for up to a full year.

Doctors seeking to help autistic individuals are far from the only ones researching oxytocin. Among other possibilities, DARPA believes it could be used to treat PTSD.