First author Ilanit Gordon and senior author Kevin Pelphrey, both of the Yale School of Medicine, and colleagues conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 17 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.
The participants, between the ages of 8-16 1/2, were randomly given either oxytocin, which has been found to be released in men and women at orgasm and to enhance maternal bonding, or a placebo via nasal spray during a task involving social judgments.
"We found that brain centers associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo," Gordon said in a statement. "Oxytocin temporarily normalized brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism."
Gordon said oxytocin facilitated social attunement, a process that makes the brain regions involved in social behavior and social cognition activate more for social stimuli, such as faces, and activate less for non-social stimuli, such as cars.
"Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders," Gordon said.
The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.