Oxytocin's neurochemical effects in the medial prefrontal cortex underlie recovery of task-specific brain activity in autism: a randomized controlled trial

Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Apr;20(4):447-53. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.74. Epub 2014 Jul 29.


The neuropeptide oxytocin may be an effective therapeutic strategy for the currently untreatable social and communication deficits associated with autism. Our recent paper reported that oxytocin mitigated autistic behavioral deficits through the restoration of activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), as demonstrated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during a socio-communication task. However, it is unknown whether oxytocin exhibited effects at the neuronal level, which was outside of the specific task examined. In the same randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, within-subject cross-over clinical trial in which a single dose of intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) was administered to 40 men with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (UMIN000002241/000004393), we measured N-acetylaspartate (NAA) levels, a marker for neuronal energy demand, in the vmPFC using (1)H-magnetic resonance spectroscopy ((1)H-MRS). The differences in the NAA levels between the oxytocin and placebo sessions were associated with oxytocin-induced fMRI signal changes in the vmPFC. The oxytocin-induced increases in the fMRI signal could be predicted by the NAA differences between the oxytocin and placebo sessions (P=0.002), an effect that remained after controlling for variability in the time between the fMRI and (1)H-MRS scans (P=0.006) and the order of administration of oxytocin and placebo (P=0.001). Furthermore, path analysis showed that the NAA differences in the vmPFC triggered increases in the task-dependent fMRI signals in the vmPFC, which consequently led to improvements in the socio-communication difficulties associated with autism. The present study suggests that the beneficial effects of oxytocin are not limited to the autistic behavior elicited by our psychological task, but may generalize to other autistic behavioral problems associated with the vmPFC.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intranasal
  • Adult
  • Aspartic Acid / analogs & derivatives*
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Autistic Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxytocics / administration & dosage
  • Oxytocics / pharmacology
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage*
  • Oxytocin / pharmacology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Protons
  • Recovery of Function / drug effects*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocics
  • Protons
  • Aspartic Acid
  • Oxytocin
  • N-acetylaspartate
  • Oxygen