Can an Inhaler Cure Autism?

A hormone-laced inhaler looks promising for treating social issues in autistics

Photograph from Stockbyte

It’s so simple that it sounds outlandish, but a number of recent studies show that inhaled puffs of a hormone called oxytocin can improve the lives of schizophrenics and those suffering from autism and anxiety disorders. The naturally produced hormone appears to make patients better able to recognize what emotions others are feeling—which, naturally, improves their relationships.

Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” is produced in quantity by pregnant women in labor; scientists believe it promotes bonding with newborn babies by enhancing communication between neurons in the mothers’ brains. They’ve now found it also helps people pay more attention to the “social information” surrounding them, reducing anxiety in social encounters and/or increasing the hormonal rewards patients receive for negotiating those encounters. Schizophrenics and autistics typically have a hard time establishing relationships with others. Teaching them social skills isn’t always successful, and no available drugs address this core issue in their illnesses.

In one of the studies, autistic patients listened to readings delivered in different emotional tones; those who’d inhaled oxytocin were much better at identifying the intended emotions. In another study, schizophrenics eyed pictures of faces; oxytocin significantly improved their ability to distinguish whether a face was surprised, happy, fearful or sad. In yet another study, inhaled oxytocin reduced the incidence of repetitive behaviors among autistics and improved their “overall ability to function.”