Sex differences in oxytocin and vasopressin: implications for autism spectrum disorders?

Behav Brain Res. 2007 Jan 10;176(1):170-86. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2006.08.025. Epub 2006 Sep 25.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are male-biased and characterized by deficits in social behavior and social communication, excessive anxiety or hyperreactivity to stressful experiences, and a tendency toward repetitiveness. The purpose of this review is to consider evidence for a role for two sexually dimorphic neuropeptides, oxytocin (OT) and arginine vasopressin (VP), in these features of ASD. Both VP and OT play a role in normal development. VP is androgen-dependent and of particular importance to male behavior. Excess VP or disruptions in the VP system could contribute to the male vulnerability to ASD. Alternatively, protective processes mediated via OT or the OT receptor might help to explain the relatively rare occurrence of ASD in females. Disruptions in either OT or VP or their receptors could result from genetic variation or epigenetic modifications of gene expression, especially during early development. Deficits in other developmental growth factors, such as reelin, which may in turn regulate or be regulated by OT or VP, are additional candidates for a role in ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Arginine Vasopressin / metabolism*
  • Autistic Disorder / metabolism*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Reelin Protein
  • Sex Factors


  • Reelin Protein
  • Arginine Vasopressin
  • Oxytocin
  • RELN protein, human