Children with high levels of the love hormone oxytocin have superior social skills, according to new research that was originally intended to find out if children with autism had lower levels of oxytocin than healthy children. Researchers from Stanford University published their accidental yet enlightening study’s findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers found oxytocin levels in autistic children are no different than those levels in children who aren't on the autism spectrum. Children on the autism spectrum have a complex brain development disorder, which makes social interaction difficult, and affects their verbal and nonverbal communication skills and oftentimes exhibit repetitive behavior. Because oxytocin, a powerful hormone secreted at the base of the brain, is responsible for bonding and harmonious feelings, researchers thought there might be a lower level in autistic children.
Researchers studied the oxytocin levels in nearly 200 children at Stanford and found the levels affected autistic children and healthy children equally; the higher their levels, the better they performed socially with confident and adept communication skills. Previous research has found it can increase levels of trust, improve emotion identification, and also create positive social response. It speeds up childbirth and strengthens the bond between mother and child post-birth and during breastfeeding.
"If oxytocin has a general pro-social effect on individuals, it still very much argues for engaging the oxytocin system for therapeutic reasons," Rob Ring, chief science officer for the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks, told HealthDay. "This research shows in people with autism that if you have increasing levels of oxytocin, you have increasing ability in social behavior. That is valuable knowledge."
Oxytocin is released during also all activities that require a bond between two people, such as sex, hugging, kissing, giving birth, breastfeeding, and even just holding hands. The study also found a genetic link between oxytocin levels. If a child’s parent had lower levels, the likelihood of them having lower levels increased. For years oxytocin was a suspected underlying cause of autism, which affects one in 68 children in the United States, and numbers continue to rise, according to Autism Speaks.
"The higher your oxytocin [levels], the better your social functioning," said study author Karen Parker, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford. "Oxytocin appears to be a universal regulator of social functioning in humans," the study’s lead author Dr. Karen Parker, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said in a press release. "That encompasses both typically developing children as well as those with the severe social deficits we see in children with autism."
Once the team of researchers found the 79 autistic children had similar levels of oxytocin as their 52 healthy sibling and 62 unrelated children without autism, they were forced to cross oxytocin off the list of possible causes of autism. In addition to checking the children’s blood-oxytocin levels, they also evaluated their overall social abilities with a series of diagnostic tools used for autism spectrum disorder.
“We found that social functioning was similar between related siblings, and oxytocin levels were way more similar between siblings. It may be there's a subpopulation of people with low oxytocin levels, and they may be the best responders to oxytocin treatment," Parker said. "This may help us handpick the people we think are going to benefit most from this therapy."
Source: Parker KJ and Hardan A. Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo Controlled Trial of Intranasal Oxytocin Treatment for Social Deficits in Children With Autism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014.