'Cuddle' hormone 'help for autism'

A single spray of the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin can temporarily help children with autism overcome their disability, research has shown.

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Scientists studied 17 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders

A single spray of the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin can temporarily help children with autism overcome their disability, research has shown.

Scientists studied 17 children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders who were randomly treated either with an oxytocin nasal spray or an inactive dummy compound.

"We found that brain centres associated with reward and emotion recognition responded more during social tasks when children received oxytocin instead of the placebo," said lead scientist Dr Ilanit Gordon, from Yale University in the United States. "Oxytocin temporarily normalised brain regions responsible for the social deficits seen in children with autism."

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the first to evaluate the impact of the hormone on the brain function of young people.

Oxytocin, nicknamed the "cuddle" or "love hormone", plays key roles in social activity.

Research has shown that it helps to seal the bond between loving couples, as well as mothers and their babies.

It also appears to make people more trusting and generous.

Social behaviour is at the heart of autism, which impairs a person's ability to communicate with others and understand emotional signals such as smiling faces.

In the study, oxytocin caused the brains of autistic children to respond more to social stimuli - such as faces - and less to non-social stimuli, such as cars.

"Our results are particularly important considering the urgent need for treatments to target social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders," said Dr Gordon.

Autism spectrum disorders cover a range of developmental problems which affect about 600,000 people in the UK.

Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society's Centre for Autism, said: "Research investigating the impact oxytocin can have on people with autism is still in its very early stages. While the findings of this particular study are interesting, no hard and fast conclusions should be drawn.

"Autism is a very complex disability and can present a variety of challenges that extend beyond social difficulties. It's crucial that those living with the condition have all their needs assessed so that they can access the appropriate support."