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While the following research study at the University of Tokyo has been going on for over a year now, we feel it’s important enough to bring to your attention, especially following recent medically related events. For the past month or so in the States, autism has once again been thrust into the national spotlight surrounding a “debate” about whether childhood vaccinations could lead to the neurodevelopmental disorder after an outbreak of the preventable measles disease was traced back to California’s Disneyland. Though the original study which found a link between vaccinating children and autism has since been disproved, a number of parents still maintain that a link exists between the two.

That being said, this ongoing Japanese study has been investigating the possibility of whether a nasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin could reduce the severity of symptoms in people with relatively mild forms of autism.  

In Japan, it is estimated that approximately one out of every hundred people is considered to be on the autism spectrum. The autism spectrum was redefined in 2013 to encompass the diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorders not otherwise specified. Childhood disintegrative disorder (Heller’s syndrome) is also sometimes considered to be a low functioning form of autism. In general terms, people with autism experience various difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors.

Here’s where a certain peptide hormone secreted by the posterior pituitary gland in the brain, the mammalian neurohypophysial hormone oxytocin, to be exact, comes into play. Often referred to as either “the bonding hormone” or “the love hormone,” you may have even heard about oxytocin at some point in your daily life, even if you’re not in a medical profession to begin with. It turns out that this hormone plays a large role in social recognition, bonding and even in the willingness of an individual to trust others, among other things.

▼A CPK model of the structure of oxytocin

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So what’s the connection between oxytocin and autism? Professors Hidenori Yamasue and Takamitsu Watanabe of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher education, have been conducting a study that investigates whether extra doses of the hormone in the form of an easily administered nasal spray could help improve the communicative ability of patients with a mild form of autism. Luckily for them, there is a hospital attached to the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Medicine, so they have a ready-made environment in which to test their findings.

In one of their previous experiments, the researchers administered the nasal spray containing oxytocin to 40 adult men with mild cases of autism. In order to reduce the likelihood of bias, neither the doctors nor the patients knew whether the spray being used was the real hormonal spray or a placebo at the time of administration. A subsequent psychological test paired with an MRI brain scan revealed that the subjects who received the oxytocin nasal spray appeared to have gained an increased ability to recognize the emotions of other people (this English language article from the Asahi Shimbun has further information about the results of the experiment).

We’ll be sure to let you know if we hear anything else about the nasal spray, or any other medical commodity that could lessen the daily difficulties surrounding social interaction for people with autism.

Sources: Mynavi News via Hachima Kiko, Wikipedia (Oxytocin), Wikipedia (ASDs) 
Images: Mynavi NewsWikipedia (MindZiper)