Despite promising evidence from early research, a new clinical study finds no evidence that children with autism benefit from nasal sprays containing the “love” hormone oxytocin.
Researchers called the results disappointing.
But the study also provides important information: some parents of children with autism are already using oxytocin nasal sprays to support their children’s social development.
That hope was awakened by the positive results of a few small studies testing synthetic versions of oxytocin – a natural hormone in the body that supports the bond between mother and child or romantic partners.
However, the new study found that children who received oxytocin showed no greater improvements in their social skills than those who received a placebo nasal spray over a six-month period.
“The lesson from this study is that the benefits parents can see from these nasal sprays are unlikely to be related to the oxytocin,” said lead researcher Dr. Linmarie Sikich. “It probably has to do with other things going on around the child.”
The good news is that no safety concerns emerged during the study, said Sikich, an associate consulting professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, NC
“Parents who have used oxytocin needn’t worry that it caused harm,” she noted.
Unfortunately, Sikich said, “There was no evidence that it helped.”
The results were published in the October 14th New England Journal of Medicine.
Autism is a developmental disorder of the brain that affects about one in 54 children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disorder is complex and varies widely from person to person. A common denominator, however, is that people with autism have varying degrees of difficulty communicating and socializing.
Behavioral therapy, especially started early in life, can help children develop social skills, said Dr. Daniel Geschwind, Professor of Genetics, Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The majority of children react,” he said, “but not all. And only in some people is it a dramatic reaction.”
The basic idea behind the administration of oxytocin is that it could enable a better response to behavioral interventions, according to Geschwind, who wrote an editorial that was published with the study.
He wasn’t convinced the trial would mean the end of oxytocin as an option for autism. For one, he said the study didn’t pair treatment with behavior therapy.
“Oxytocin has a short half-life in the body,” said Geschwind. “And its effects depend on the situation you are in.”
He compared giving oxytocin without timely behavioral therapy to an athlete who took steroids but did not do strength training.
The study enrolled 290 children and adolescents with autism, ages 3 to 17, who were randomly assigned to use either an oxytocin nasal spray or a placebo spray up to twice a day for six months.
All study participants were allowed to continue any behavior therapy or medication they had been taking prior to the study.
During the study, parents completed standard questionnaires about their children’s behavior, including social interactions. On average, according to Sikich’s team, the children in both study groups showed improvement in social skills over time – but there was no difference between the groups.
A previous study had pointed to a factor that could be critical: the initial levels of oxytocin in the blood of children. That said, synthetic oxytocin might only help if the natural levels are low.
But, Sikich said, her team found no evidence that the nasal spray worked better in study patients with lower oxytocin levels. It’s also possible that the tactic early on in child development might be more effective, but again, Sikich said, the results were no different in the youngest children in the study.
However, she added that nothing can be inferred about the use of oxytocin before the age of 3.
Schnell pointed out the complexities of autism, including the set of genes associated with the disorder. Certain gene mutations, he found, have been linked to low levels of oxytocin.