Evidence suggests that intranasal application of oxytocin facilitates empathy and modulates its underlying neural processes, which are often impaired in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Oxytocin has therefore been considered a promising candidate for the treatment of social difficulties in ASD. However, evidence linking oxytocin treatment to social behavior and brain function in ASD is limited and heterogeneous effects might depend on variations in the oxytocin-receptor gene (OXTR). We examined 25 male ASD patients without intellectual disability in a double-blind, cross-over, placebo-controlled fMRI-protocol, in which a single dose of oxytocin or placebo was applied intranasally. Patients performed three experiments in the MRI examining empathy for other’s physical pain, basic emotions, and social pain. All participants were genotyped for the rs53576 single-nucleotide polymorphism of the OXTR. Oxytocin increased bilateral amygdala responsiveness during the physical pain task for both painful and neutral stimuli. Other than that, there were no effects of oxytocin treatment. OXTR genotype did not significantly interact with oxytocin treatment. Our results contribute to the growing body of empirical literature suggesting heterogenous effects of oxytocin administration in ASD. To draw clinically relevant conclusions regarding the usefulness of oxytocin treatment, however, empirical studies need to consider methods of delivery, dose, and moderating individual factors more carefully in larger samples.
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Randomized clinical trial shows no substantial modulation of empathy-related neural activation by intranasal oxytocin in autism.