Oxytocin is a hormone produced within the pituitary gland in the brain. Oxytocin controls key aspects of the reproductive system including childbirth and lactation (production of milk).
During childbirth oxytocin stimulates the muscles of the uterus to contract and also increases production of prostaglandins (a type of fatty acid) which increases the contractions further. During breastfeeding oxytocin promotes the movement of milk into the breast, allowing it to be excreted by the nipples.
Oxytocin has also been shown to be important in some aspects of human behaviours including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety and mother–infant bonding. As a result, oxytocin has been called the 'love hormone' or 'cuddle chemical'.
Some researchers believe that individuals on the autism spectrum have abnormal levels of oxytocin or that their bodies are poor at processing the oxytocin that they do have. They believe that this may cause or increase some of the difficulties that autistic people face (such as difficulty making eye contact and poor emotion recognition skills).
These researchers have suggested that taking synthetic oxytocin, via a nasal inhaler or an intravenous infusion, may help to overcome some of those problems.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) made the following recommendation.
"Do not use oxytocin for the management of core symptoms of autism in adults." (NICE, 2012)
There is a small amount of high quality research evidence (18 group studies) and a very small amount of low quality research (four single-case design studies with three or more participants) into the use of oxytocin for individuals on the autism spectrum.
This research suggests that oxytocin may be an effective way to help some adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum with some issues (such as difficulty making eye contact and poor emotion recognition skills). There is insufficient research to determine if oxytocin can help them with other issues (such as repetitive and restricted behaviours, interests and activities).
However we believe that many of the studies undertaken to date do not really constitute proper trials into the effectiveness or otherwise of oxytocin as a way to help people on the autism spectrum. Rather they are semi-theoretical studies, the results of which may have no relevance in the real world.
At this stage, we do not know whether oxytocin will have any benefits nor whether there are any risks involved. For this reason we do not feel that oxytocin can be considered a valid intervention for people on the autism spectrum.
There is a need for more research into oxytocin which uses scientifically robust, experimental methodologies with larger numbers of more diverse participants. That research should investigate whether oxytocin is more or less effective than other interventions designed to achieve the same aims. It should also investigate whether specific individuals are more likely to benefit from oxytocin than other individuals, the appropriate dosages to use etc.
At this stage, we believe that oxytocin should only be used under strictly controlled conditions and under the guidance (and responsibility for prescribing) of a specialist with skill and experience in its use.
Please read our Disclaimer on Autism Interventions