21/05/2012 09:14 BST | Updated 21/05/2012 10:48 BST

Oxytocin Hormone ‘Improves Brain Function In Autistic Children'

Scientists claim a naturally occurring substance produced in the brain (dubbed the ‘love hormone’) improves the brain function in autistic children.

This discovery brings fresh hope to those who suffer from autism-related social-communicative dysfunctions, which include stranger anxiety in social environments, separation distress and lack of non-verbal communication (lack of eye contact, pointing, smiling).

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released in the brain when people hug, kiss, touch and have sex. It's also released during the postnatal bonding period between a mother and her newborn and during breastfeeding.

Researchers from the Yale Child Study Center discovered an increase in brain function in regions that process social information (such as hearing, eyesight, speech and observation) after autism spectrum disorder (ASD) patients inhaled an oxytocin-induced nasal spray.

The study involved giving a group of children aged seven to 18 with ASD a single dose of oxytocin spray.

This was followed by a functional magnetic resonance brain imaging scan (fMRI), which detected the areas of the brain that were directly affected by the oxytocin.

The results revealed an almost immediate activation of brain regions that are known to control and manage communication and social dysfunctions involved in autism.

"Our findings provide the first, critical steps toward devising more effective treatments for the core social deficits in autism, which may involve a combination of clinical interventions with an administration of oxytocin," lead researcher Ilanit Gordon said in a statement.

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The researchers’ discovery is part of preliminary results from an ongoing, large-scale study and is the first to demonstrate a functional and safe method of relieving behavioural problems people with ASD face.

Researchers stressed however, that their research is not a cure for autism.

"Such a treatment approach will fundamentally improve our understanding of autism and its treatment,” adds Gordon.

The researchers from this study presented their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research.

This isn’t the first time oxytocin has been linked to improving the social skills of those with autism.

In 2010, a team of scientists from the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive (CNRS) discovered that oxytocin significantly increases autistic people’s ability to interact with others.

Researchers administering the ‘bonding hormone’ to 13 high-functioning autistic (HFA) and Asperger syndrome patients and observed their social behaviour during a sociable ball game by analysing their facial expressions and ability to recognise faces.

For those previously found it extremely difficult to engage spontaneously in social situations and avoided eye contact with people (all classic symptoms of autism and ASD), oxytocin greatly improved their social, cooperative and engagment skills during the ball games.

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