Oxytocin Improves Social Skills in Schizophrenia and Autism

Oxytocin is a nonapeptide that helps alleviate contractions during childbirth and stimulates milk production for breast-feeding. Oxytocin also affects key regions of the brain that influence social behaviors. Recent studies have shown that oxytocin increases certain types of eye movement and negative evaluation of emotions in people with autism. Research has also shown that autistic children who are given oxytocin are more trusting of others and engage in social behaviors more willingly. Social impairments are among the many symptoms of schizophrenia as well. Individuals who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and even immediate family members without the illness, have difficulty accurately perceiving the emotional states of those around them. The positive effects of oxytocin on autistic children prompted B. B. Averbeck of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland to conduct a study exploring how oxytocin would influence social deficits in individuals with schizophrenia.

Averbeck enlisted 30 clients with schizophrenia and 29 healthy individuals for the study. The participants were first required to analyze facial emotions of pictures presented to them. Then, after receiving oxytocin, they were asked to review the faces and attempt to accurately identify the emotions again. The study revealed that the clients with schizophrenia made more errors than the controls. However, after receiving the oxytocin, the schizophrenic participants showed dramatic improvement. Difficulty in properly assessing others’ emotions can cause significant social impairment for individuals with autism and schizophrenia. Misread emotions can lead to anger, frustration, fear, and even paranoia in these individuals. Being able to correctly gauge the emotions of others can substantially improve their ability to interact harmoniously with others and increase their social functioning. Because the results of this study were evident after only 3 weeks of oxytocin use, Averbeck believes more extensive research should be conducted to further the exploration of the positive effects of oxytocin. Averbeck believes this study provides clinical hope to those with schizophrenia and autism, and added, “This offers the potential in the future of integrating oxytocin treatment with psychological therapy using the window of opportunity created by the acute oxytocin effects.”

Averbeck, B.B., Bobin, T., Evans, S., Shergill, S. S. Emotion Recognition and Oxytocin in Patients with Schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine 42.2 (2012): 259-66. Print.

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  • cole

    March 1st, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    I am always so wary about trying this kind of stuff on kids. How do we know what the long term consequences of this are going to be on a child’s development? If an adult chooses to take it then that’s one thing, but as a parent I would have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the benefits were going to outweigh the consequences and that it was not gaing to harm the overall and lasting health of my child. Thanks for the forum to share- Cole

  • Paxton

    March 2nd, 2012 at 5:22 AM

    Are there any worries about addiction? Is this the same thing as all that pain med stuff that people are abusing?

  • Lorraine

    March 2nd, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    Paxton, I think you are thinking about oxycodone and not oxytocin.

  • TodH

    March 3rd, 2012 at 5:43 AM

    If it works for scizophrenics and sutistics shouldn’t it work to improve the social skills of others too?

    Why limit it? There has got to be an audience of other people who feel like they need help in the social skills dept, as we know that can get you pretty far.

  • Pam

    March 3rd, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I am so glad that I was browsing through here today.
    My own child has autism and while he does pretty well with the family in terms of social skills and abilities it is a real challenge when he has to be around people that he does not know.
    That is way out of his comfort zone, but to know that there is something that could actually help him really makes me smile just a little.
    He is really such an energetic and bright young boy, but socializing is a challenge and I want so much more for him than what he has now.

  • RunninFast

    March 4th, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    It’s interesting that being able to read facial cues is such a huge part of being socially successful. But that is pretty clearly evidenced by this study and the results of the schizoprenics before being given the oxytocin. I suppose that the same thing could be concluded about the autistic subjects as well since this can be a problem for those who suffer from autism too. This is pretty groundbreaking stuff here, something that could potentially mage a huge impact in the quality of life that many of these patients have. It must be great as a parent or caregiver to read and to realize that there can be hope, that this does not have to be the end and that there are things available to help their loved ones get the most out of life.

  • cg

    September 22nd, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    if you increase social skills of everyone who’s normal, and then increase it in schizophrenics, both parties would get better at the same time. So if group a rises, and so does group b, then group a wouldn’t receive a noticeable increase is social skills because they rise together, the proportion of social skill stays the same if both groups rises.

    I hope that makes sense, my brain is constantly getting erased and I have to find ways to think the same thing but differently in a hurry before that gets erased too!

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