Making a social connection

By | Science & Technology
3D model of an oxytocin molecule

Oxytocin is a hormone frequently referred to as the love hormone. The pituitary gland releases oxytocin at times of child birth and nursing, this aims to create a mother’s bond between the child and her. It aims to be proposed to be the foundation for long term love causing increased monogamy in many mammals; oxytocin may just be the root cause of love. With a strong connection with bonding, oxytocin is vital for a person to form any long term relationships. As such this may make it an important factor in the development of skills required to form relationships.

A recent discovery by scientists at the Yale School of Medicine has found another application for this potent substance. Oxytocin shows promising results when administered to children with autism. Autism simply described is a condition that affects information processing in the brain. This most commonly manifests within methods of communication; actions such a body language and verbal exchanges may appear alien and perplexing. Autism belongs to a spectrum which means whilst some people with this condition might social develop seemingly unaffected, others are totally inhibited and find social interaction and the formation of intimate relationships simply unachievable.

The study recently published in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences displayed how a single dose of the hormone oxytocin, administered through a nasal spray, enhances brain activity specifically whilst the brain is processing social information amongst children with differing levels and forms of autism. These benefits have attributed towards a hypothesis that implies oxytocin plays an important role within social behaviour and understanding. Whilst others simply assign the beneficial nature of the hormone to its explicitly observed love affect where trust and confidence is promoted, which aims to improve cognitive function merely by removal of pressure. Either way oxytocin provides a modicum of relief to individuals which otherwise may live a confined and quite separated life.

However, if this is connected with the underlying mechanics of autism oppose to acting as a relaxant, it might offer valuable insight towards the way in which autism is caused and methods of providing its relief.

Prior to this research, a study was published which stated the opposite of these findings highlighting the uncertainty behind this concept. With opinion so split what are the facts behind oxytocin and its contribution to autism? To begin this exploration one needs to first analyse the results. After the nasal spray the brain’s reaction to social stimuli was analysed by a MRI machine. Data displayed an increased level of activity amongst portions of the brain that deal with rewards and emotion recognition during these social exercises. This implies subjects were enjoying social involvement and displayed increased apprehension of communication methods. These observed changes are likened to a process of normalisation where by the specific brain sectors involved with autism, in the presence of oxytocin function as normal.

It has been shown to alleviate several other symptoms such as; reduction of repetitive behaviour and an increased comprehension for empathy. Oxytocin was shown to reduce brain activity in areas which control non-social stimuli which in a heightened state may make cars and busy places seem challenging.

This discovery though in its early stages of research shows a promising future for an entire community of people of which find everyday social interaction to be complex and disenfranchising. To some this find may appear as a quick fix, yet the researchers participating in the most recent study claim, oxytocin may trigger long term change. Under the effects of oxytocin the symptoms of autism to a varying degree are eased. Within this window of oxytocin attributed clarity patients are now able to understand socialisation and might begin to learn. Theoretically learning adjustments may be made to neural systems, ultimately resulting in behavioural shifts to more socially accepting mentalities.

As well as social learning to what extent may this treatment help autistic children within the classroom and academia?

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