When we engage in intimate social interactions, the “trust hormone” oxytocin likely plays a role—it is vital to building normal relationships. Even a synthetic version has been shown to boost feelings of security. Now increasing evidence suggests that oxytocin could also correct some of the interpersonal deficiencies experienced by those who have autism.
In a study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 13 high-functioning adults with autism played a computerized ball-tossing game with three fictitious characters. Some of the computer-controlled players behaved less cooperatively than others, and to succeed at the game, subjects needed to identify them and avoid passing them the ball. When given a placebo, those with autism could not differentiate among playmates. After the patients received oxytocin, however, their performance resembled that of people without autism—they favored the more cooperative players.
“Not only can people with autism socialize more under the effect of oxytocin, they can understand the behaviors of others and respond accordingly,” explains study co-author Angela Sirigu, director of research at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in Bron, France.