Saliva oxytocin, cortisol, and testosterone levels in adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorder, oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder and typically developing individuals

Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2020 Jan:30:87-101. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2018.07.097. Epub 2018 Sep 7.


The aim of the current study was to compare levels of oxytocin, cortisol, and testosterone in adolescents with either autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)/conduct disorder (CD), and in typically developing individuals (TDI), and relate hormone levels to severity and subtype of aggression and callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Saliva concentrations of oxytocin, cortisol, and testosterone were assessed in 114 male participants (N = 49 ASD, N = 37 ODD/CD, N = 28 TDI,) aged 12-19 years (M = 15.4 years, SD = 1.9). The ASD and the ODD/CD groups had significantly lower levels of oxytocin than the TDI group, and the ODD/CD group had significantly higher levels of testosterone than the ASD group. There were no group effects on cortisol levels. Group differences remained for oxytocin after correcting for the influence of CU traits, but were not significant after controlling for aggression. Results for testosterone became non-significant after correction for either CU traits or aggression. Across groups, higher levels of CU traits were related to higher levels of cortisol and testosterone, however, proactive and reactive aggression were unrelated to all three hormonal levels. The current findings show that, regardless of cognitive ability or comorbid disorders, the diagnostic groups (ASD, ODD/CD) differ from each other by their hormonal levels, with the ASD group characterized by relative low level of oxytocin, and the ODD/CD group by a relative low level of oxytocin and high level of testosterone. These group effects were partly driven by differences in CU traits between the groups.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; CU traits; Conduct disorder; Cortisol; Empathy; Oxytocin; Testosterone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aggression / physiology
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / epidemiology
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / metabolism*
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / epidemiology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / metabolism*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Child
  • Conduct Disorder / epidemiology
  • Conduct Disorder / metabolism*
  • Conduct Disorder / psychology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Netherlands / epidemiology
  • Oxytocin / analysis
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Testosterone / analysis
  • Testosterone / metabolism*
  • Young Adult


  • Testosterone
  • Oxytocin
  • Hydrocortisone