"Love" hormone may help autism symptoms: study

Mon Feb 15, 2010 3:01pm EST
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By JoAnne Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A hormone thought to encourage bonding between mothers and their babies may foster social behavior in some adults with autism, French researchers said on Monday.

They found patients who inhaled the hormone oxytocin paid more attention to expressions when looking at pictures of faces and were more likely to understand social cues in a game simulation, the researchers said in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Angela Sirigu of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon, who led the study, said the hormone has a therapeutic potential in adults as well as in children with autism.

"For instance, if oxytocin is administered early when the diagnosis is made, we can perhaps change very early the impaired social development of autistic patients," Sirigu said in an email.

Sirigu said the study focused on oxytocin because it was known to help breast-feeding mothers bond with their infants and because earlier research has shown that some children with autism have low levels of the hormone.

People with Asperger's syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders often have problems with social interaction.

Sirigu said oxytocin could help autism patients who have normal intellectual functions and fairly good language abilities because it improves eye contact.

"Eye contact can be considered the first step of social approach," Sirigu said. But people with autism often avoid looking at others.   Continued...