A nasal spray containing a hormone that makes women more maternal and men less shy apparently can help those with autism make eye contact and interact better with others, according to a provocative study released yesterday.
The study, involving 13 adults with autism, found that when they inhaled the hormone oxytocin they scored significantly better on a test that involved recognizing faces and performed much better in a game that involved tossing a ball with other people.
Although more research is needed, especially on children, to confirm and explore the findings, the results are the latest in a growing body of evidence indicating that the hormone could lead to ways to help people with the often devastating brain disorder function better.
"This is the first study that looked at whether oxytocin has an effect on social behavior, which is a major deficit in autism," said Angela Sirigu, who directs the National Center for Scientific Research in France and led the study, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It looks like it could be very helpful."
Researchers who were not involved in the study praised the work, saying the findings were promising and could lead to the first effective treatment for the central problems affecting people with autism.
"I think it's going to be a very exciting finding for a lot of people," said Alex Martin, chief of cognitive neuropsychology at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
Because oxytocin does not last long in the body and produces its effects for a relatively brief period, some experts said the findings were more likely to encourage drug companies to develop alternative substances that had the same benefits.
Sirigu was among those who said the finding should encourage more research on the potential benefits of oxytocin itself, especially for children. Administering the hormone soon after a child is diagnosed with autism might help him or her develop more normally, she said.
Because previous research has indicated some people with autism might have abnormally low levels of oxytocin, conducting tests to identify those people and administering them the hormone might help them as well, according to Karen Parker, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Autism is a baffling disorder that can cause a variety of symptoms, including speech and learning problems and profound, disabling difficulties understanding emotions and social cues and interacting with people. The number of children being diagnosed with autism has been increasing for reasons that are mysterious.