14 April 2012

Giant Leaps in Autism Research

By Dr. Bonnie Evans
Heterocephalus glaber - the naked mole 

I recently came across some research on naked mole rats which may help to cure autism. Whilst on one level it may seem implausible that such disparate things can be linked together, on another level it all makes perfect sense.  The link is oxytocin, or the ‘love hormone’ as it was referred to in the 1970s, which also acts as a neurotransmitter.  

Oxytocin is produced in large amounts during labour and has been associated with bonding, maternal care and the formation of attachments. Naked mole rats (right) are renowned for their collective organisation as they live in large colonies supporting the offspring of a single female. Research published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology in 2010 showed that oxytocin is abundantly available in the nucleus accumbens of this species. In contrast, cape mole rats (below) live solitary lives with fleeting bouts of copulation and short periods of support for their offspring.  The researchers found that oxytocin and its receptors are absent from the nucleus accumbens of cape mole rats and suggested that oxytocin influences the formation of pro-social behaviours (Kalamatianos et al., 2010).

Georychus capensis - cape mole rat 
An article published in Nature in 2005 claimed that intranasal administration of oxytocin increased trust and social co-operation in humans (Kosfeld et al., 2005).  This stimulated both scientific and public interest into the role of this hormone in the treatment of psychiatric disorders in which it is believed that social abilities are lacking.  

Autism is currently classed as a disorder characterised by problems with relationships and social interactions as well as repetitive and obsessive behaviours.  Eric Hollander, based in New York, has conducted a series of studies on the effects of oxytocin on people diagnosed with autism and autism spectrum disorders and has found that the intranasal and intravenous administration of this hormone provided ‘therapeutic benefits for the treatment of repetitive behaviours and social deficits’ (Bartz and Hollander, 2008).  

Similar studies have shown that oxytocin helps autistic individuals to recognise emotions in the tone of voice and facial expressions of others thus enabling them to build relationships. More recently, researchers in North Carolina have been giving young autistic children, some as young as three-years-old, oxytocin to see whether this encourages social interaction (http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01308749). This research is still in its early days.

The use of hormones to alter psychiatric conditions is not new.  In a forthcoming article in the Journal of the History of Behavioural Sciences, I show how hormonal treatments were used to treat psychiatric conditions in Britain in the 1920s (in press – due out Summer/Fall 2012).  The psychiatric use of oxytocin can be traced back to the 1990s but it is only recently that it has been specifically linked to social problems.  Hopes have since grown for the development of new drugs to treat social disorders.  

When neuroscientists talk about society, it is normal that we should prick up our ears and listen to what they say.  ‘The social’ is an amorphous term that encompasses countless variations yet neuroscientists focus on the brain.  In research proposals for neuroscientific research, as in press reports, it is common that giant leaps are made between large concepts such as ‘the social’ and unique neurotransmitters such as oxytocin.  Such giant leaps are also often made between the behaviour of humans and other species.  These leaps encourage intellectual curiosity and research in the neurosciences but they should also encourage similar curiosity amongst social scientists, historians and the general public. There may just be as much work to do in analyzing our ideas about autism and ‘the social’ as there is work to do in analyzing the effects of oxytocin on the brain.

Dr Bonnie Evans is interested in the development of psychology, psychoanalysis and psychiatry in the twentieth century. Her work examines the impact of demographic shifts on the formation of new psychological theories and treatment practices. She has a particular interest in the development of child psychology and psychiatry and in the treatment of female patients.

BARTZ, J. A. & HOLLANDER, E. 2008. Oxytocin and experimental therapeutics in autism spectrum disorders. In: INGA, D. N. & RAINER, L. (eds.) Progress in Brain Research. Elsevier.

KALAMATIANOS, T., FAULKES, C. G., OOSTHUIZEN, M. K., POORUN, R., BENNETT, N. C. & COEN, C. W. 2010. Telencephalic binding sites for oxytocin and social organization: A comparative study of eusocial naked mole-rats and solitary cape mole-rats. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 518, 1792-1813.

KOSFELD, M., HEINRICHS, M., ZAK, P. J., FISCHBACHER, U. & FEHR, E. 2005. Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.

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