Oxytocin Could Enhance Social Abilities for Autism, Schizophrenia Patients

Internal Medicine World Report, March 2015,

Targeting oxytocin may be the answer to enhancing social function in patients with autism or schizophrenia, according to findings published by researchers from Emory University.

Psychiatric disorders like autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia may benefit from oxytocin treatment, which can enhance social function, according to an article published in Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers from Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University used pair bonding in monogamous prairie voles to demonstrate prosocial effects after the introduction of oxytocin releasing drugs. The blood brain barrier presents a challenge in the ability to get synthetic oxytocin into the brain, the researchers noted, but it was possible.

The researchers hypothesized that oxytocin releasing drugs would activate the social brain, create bonds, and treat social deficits in psychiatric disorders. In this study, the investigators were able to demonstrate that oxytocin activated melanocortin receptors, which simulates the release of oxytocin in the brain. When the researchers injected melanocortin into a pair of male and female prairie vole who did not mate, the bond between them lasted even after the drug wore away.

Other conclusions were found in this study. First, the researchers showed the same drug which activated oxytocin cells so that the cells released oxytocin directly into the brain’s reward reception centers. Additionally, the researchers believed the ability to stimulate a lasting bond between the voles meant that the drug likely also has the ability to enhance attention to and learning from social information in people with social disorders.

“Our latest discovery opens a new avenue of research to harness the power of the brain’s oxytocin system to enhance the ability to process social information that could profoundly affect treatment of social disorders, particularly when combined with behavioral therapies used to treat children on the autism spectrum,” lead researcher Larry Young, PhD said in a press release.

However, Young did note in another similar study that further investigations are required in order to examine whether “oxytocin can live up to the hype.”

Eventually, the scientists planned to aim their research into areas including social function in psychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, where they believed targeting oxytocin could be an effective therapy. They also hope to examine how the drug could possibly induce the social attention and motivation a mother feels when nursing her newborn or the bond between people newly in love.