Oxytocin is a hormone that causes the uterus to contract. It is used to induce labour, strengthen contractions during childbirth, and to control bleeding after childbirth.
Oxytocin also appears to play a key role in social behaviour and social understanding. For example, it helps to regulate sexual behaviour, mother-infant and adult-adult pair-bond formation and social memory/recognition. It has also been implicated in repetitive behaviours and stress reactivity.
Some people believe that individuals with autism, and a wide range of other conditions, have abnormal levels of oxytocin. They also believe that some of the problems faced by those individuals can be treated by taking oxytocin, either by injecting or by inhaling it.
There is a limited amount of scientifically valid and reliable research evidence to show that oxytocin may be beneficial in helping to reduce repetitive behaviours, and to improve some aspects of social information processing, in some individuals with autism.
However the studies undertaken to date do not really constitute proper trials into the effectiveness or otherwise of oxytocin as a treatment for autism. Rather they are quasi-experimental studies, the results of which may have no relevance in the real world.
At this stage, we not know whether oxytocin will have any benefits nor whether there are any risks involved. For this reason we do not feel that oxytocin can be considered a valid treatment for autism.
Oxytocin should only be used under strictly controlled conditions and under the guidance (and responsibility for prescribing) of a specialist with skill and experience in its use.
Further research is required to further examine whether other studies replicate and confirm the results from preliminary studies of oxytocin and its effect in individuals with a diagnosis of autism.
This information is reproduced with the kind permission of Research Autism. Research Autism is the only UK charity exclusively dedicated to research into interventions in autism. For further information please visit: www.researchautism.net