Oxytocin, the 'love hormone' that builds bonds between mothers and babies, could be used to treat autism in young children, an Israeli study has suggested.
Studies have shown that people with autism have low levels of oxytocin. But little is known about oxytocin levels in young children. Researchers set out to examine levels of oxytocin in pre-schoolers and whether production of the hormone could be enhanced by parent-child social contact.
The research comprised two groups: one with 40 pre-schoolers diagnosed with autism and their parents and another with 40 pre-schoolers with no known neuro-developmental or psychiatric diagnoses, and their parents.
The children were seen three times by researchers – once at their nursery and twice at home. Two identical home visits were conducted – one each with the mother and father – within the same month, with each visit lasting about two hours. Each visit included 45 minutes of parent-child contact, which included the parent picking up the child to cuddle them, and playing games with puppets and toys.
During each home visit four saliva samples were collected from each parent and child to measure levels of oxytocin. This was done before, during, at the end of and after the parent-contact period.
Researchers found that the children diagnosed with autism had lower levels of oxytocin compared to those who did not. They also found that levels of oxytocin in pre-schoolers with autism changed during the course of the visit. After 20 minutes of parent-child play, the levels of oxytocin in those with autism increased and remained high during the period of social contact. However, 15 minutes after that contact, the oxytocin in the children with autism fell to its original level.
Researcher Ruth Feldman, of the Department of Psychology and the Gonda Brain Sciences Center, Bar-llan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel, said: “Our study shows that, as with adults with autism, young children with autism have low levels of oxytocin. But the quick improvement in oxytocin production following parent-child play indicates that these sorts of attachment-based therapies could help children with autism and encourage their entry into the social world.”
Feldman R, Golan O, Hirschler-Guttenberg Y, Ostfield-Etzion S and Zagoory-Sharon O (2014) Parent-child interaction and oxytocin production in pre-schoolers with autism spectrum disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry