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Oxytocin – More than just a “Love Hormone”

Although the role of oxytocin in child birth and social behaviors such as maternal bonding and monogamy has been a focus of study for many years, recent research is exploring the hormone’s role in psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

Early studies in autism research with oxytocin therapy initially showed promising results. However, the study sizes have been small in numbers and the effects of varying doses of oxytocin on behavior has not been sufficiently investigated. A study led by Daniel Geschwind at UCLA showed that mice missing a working copy of the Cntnap2 gene responded positively to oxytocin therapy. This same gene has been associated in a small subset of autism cases with an oxytocin-signaling deficit and this study may implicate greater success rates in those patients. Nevertheless, there needs to be more collaboration between research scientists in the lab studying the effects of the oxytocin signaling-receptor mechanism in the brain, and social scientists in the field studying its effect on the behavior of clinical trial participants.

Large-scale clinical trials are on the rise, including one led by Linmarie Sikich, a child psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, who will be studying the effects of oxytocin on children with a wide range of autism symptoms.

As a rapidly growing area of research, there is still much to learn regarding both the positive and potential negative effects of oxytocin on behavior. What do you think of the role of oxytocin as a possible therapy for autism spectrum disorder, as well as other psychiatric illnesses?

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