Making the Brain Take Notice of Faces in Autism

A new study in Biological Psychiatry explores the influence of oxytocin

Philadelphia, PA, August 15, 2013

Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images.

The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.

This combination of scientific work led German researchers to hypothesize about the influence of oxytocin in ASD. Dr. Gregor Domes, from the University of Freiburg and first author of the new study, explained: "In the present study, we were interested in the question of whether a single dose of oxytocin would change brain responses to social compared to non-social stimuli in individuals with autism spectrum disorder."

They found that oxytocin did show an effect on social processing in the individuals with ASD, "suggesting that oxytocin may help to treat a basic brain function that goes awry in autism spectrum disorders," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

To conduct this study, they recruited fourteen individuals with ASD and fourteen control volunteers, all of whom completed a face- and house-matching task while undergoing imaging scans. Each participant completed this task and scanning procedure twice, once after receiving a nasal spray containing oxytocin and once after receiving a nasal spray containing placebo. The order of the sprays was randomized, and the tests were administered one week apart.

Using two sets of stimuli in the matching task, one of faces and one of houses, allowed the researchers to not only compare the effects of the oxytocin and placebo administrations, but also allowed them to discriminate findings between specific effects to only social stimuli and non-specific effects to more general brain processing.

What they found was intriguing. The data indicate that oxytocin specifically increases responses of the amygdala to social stimuli in individuals with ASD. The amygdala, the authors explain, "has been associated with processing of emotional stimuli, threat-related stimuli, face processing, and vigilance for salient stimuli".

This finding suggests oxytocin might promote the salience of social stimuli in ASD. Increased salience of social stimuli might support behavioral training of social skills in ASD.

These data support the idea that oxytocin may be a promising approach in the treatment of ASD and could stimulate further research, even clinical trials, on the exploration of oxytocin as an add-on treatment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

The article is "Effects of Intranasal Oxytocin on the Neural Basis of Face Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder" by Gregor Domes, Markus Heinrichs, Ekkehardt Kumbier, Annette Grossmann, Karlheinz Hauenstein, and Sabine C. Herpertz (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.02.007). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 74, Issue 3 (August 1, 2013), published by Elsevier.

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Notes for Editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Gregor Domes at +49 761 203 3035 or domes@psychologie.uni-freiburg.de.

The authors' affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry
is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry
is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 4th out of 135 Psychiatry titles and 13thout of 251 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2012 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 9.247.

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Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu