Studies Explore New Autism Treatment Enhancements

Baby sitting on pillow next to dogTwo unrelated studies have identified new ways to augment behavioral therapy for the treatment of autism. One, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, suggests functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can identify which children will respond best to Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT). A second study, published in Scientific Reports, found oxytocin could enhance social motivation by supporting neural networks associated with rewarding social behavior.

Using fMRI to Predict Autism Treatment Effectiveness

Pivotal Response Treatment targets areas of development, such as motivation and social skills, rather than single behaviors. PRT uses rewards, encourages child-directed learning, and endorses natural reinforcement. The program works for about 60% of children with autism, but it can be expensive and time-consuming.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screenings on the brains of 20 children with autism. The children were all in good health, with no significant history of brain injuries. Each child underwent 16 weeks of PRT.

Brain scans of neural regions associated with social attention, social reward, social information, and emotional information revealed children with more activity in these regions were more likely to experience improvements with PRT. Identifying children most likely to respond to this treatment may prompt future research into how to better prepare children who are less likely to respond to PRT.

Oxytocin to Support Social Skills in Children with Autism

For the second study, researchers explored how oxytocin affects the behavior of children with autism. Oxytocin is a hormone involved in bonding and social behavior.

Researchers conducted two separate trials on 21 children with autism, though some children were eventually excluded from the study. One trial ultimately involved 14 children and another involved 16. Almost all participants were boys. Using a double-blind, placebo-controlled model, researchers administered oxytocin via a nasal spray.

After the oxytocin or placebo dose, children participated in various social experiences. Children who received oxytocin responded better to social cues, but only when the cues were positive, such as smiles or laughing. Brain scans revealed the oxytocin helped support neural networks associated with social processing. Even with these promising results, the researchers do not suggest this oxytocin method as a main treatment for autism. Instead, it could complement other behavioral treatment methods.

The sample sizes of both studies were small, so the results are preliminary. Further research could strengthen the results and perhaps point to more effective treatments for autism.


  1. Gordon, I., Jack, A., Pretzsch, C. M., Wyk, B. V., Leckman, J. F., Feldman, R., & Pelphrey, K. A. (2016). Intranasal oxytocin enhances connectivity in the neural circuitry supporting social motivation and social perception in children with autism. Scientific Reports, 6, 35054. doi:10.1038/srep35054
  2. Pivotal response treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Two new tools to enhance effectiveness of behavioral therapy in children with autism. (2016, November 15). Retrieved from
  4. Yang, D., Pelphrey, K. A., Sukhodolsky, D. G., Crowley, M. J., Dayan, E., Dvornek, N. C., . . . Ventola, P. (2016). Brain responses to biological motion predict treatment outcome in young children with autism. Translational Psychiatry, 6(11). doi:10.1038/tp.2016.213

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • alex


    November 28th, 2016 at 2:50 PM

    I know that this is likely to be very welcome news for many families.

  • Tandy


    November 28th, 2016 at 4:22 PM

    Well you do have to start out small and then go from there. I am sure that if any of the results were at all promising then there will be more studies done on a larger scale in the future.

  • Hollis


    November 29th, 2016 at 11:32 AM

    And how much do you think that most insurance is going to be willing to cover?

  • william


    November 29th, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    This is quite the interesting topic and given ow the numbers of this have seemed to be sharply on the rise for the past decade or so, I think that it is very wise to explore multiple options that could or maybe should even be made available for families with autistic children.
    It can;t be easy knowing that there is a person inside there just wanting to be heard, wanting to get out, and not knowing how to help them achieve that. Maybe this is the start of something really big.

Leave a Reply

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.