Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by difficulties in social communication and interaction, which have been related to atypical neural processing of rewards, especially in the social domain. Since intranasal oxytocin has been shown to modulate activation of the brain’s reward circuit, oxytocin might ameliorate the processing of social rewards in ASD and thus improve social difficulties.
In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover fMRI study, we examined effects of a 24 IU dose of intranasal oxytocin on reward-related brain function in 37 men with ASD without intellectual impairment and 37 age- and IQ-matched control participants. Participants performed an incentive delay task that allows the investigation of neural activity associated with the anticipation and receipt of monetary and social rewards.
Non-significant tests suggested that oxytocin did not influence neural processes related to the anticipation of social or monetary rewards in either group. Complementary Bayesian analyses indicated moderate evidence for a null model, relative to an alternative model. Our results are inconclusive regarding possible oxytocin effects on amygdala responsiveness to social rewards during reward consumption. There were no significant differences in reward-related brain function between the two groups under placebo.
Our results do not support the hypothesis that intranasal oxytocin generally enhances activation of reward-related neural circuits in men with and without ASD.