People with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism, dramatically improve their social learning skills and spend more time gazing at pictures of faces after inhaling the social-bonding hormone oxytocin, researchers have found.
The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is the first to demonstrate the effects of oxytocin - a hormone that promotes mother-infant bonding, socialization, trust and cooperation - in people diagnosed with Asperger's.
It led some experts to speculate that supplementing the normally low oxytocin levels in people with autism disorders may help their social interactions.
In the study, 13 subjects with Asperger's syndrome and a control group were quizzed about photos of human faces. Such images normally prompt Asperger's subjects to avert their gaze, especially avoiding the eyes. For 90 minutes after inhaling oxytocin, those subjects were more willing to study faces, including the eyes.
They were also better able to tell whether they were being ignored in a computerized ball-tossing game. People with Asperger's would usually not pick up on such differential treatment.
Coauthor Angela Sirigu of the University of Lyon's Center of Cognitive Neuroscience said oxytocin's effect in the second test was especially important as it prompted subjects to interact with others and "learn from others' feedback."