A randomized controlled trial of intranasal oxytocin in Phelan-McDermid syndrome

Mol Autism. 2021 Sep 30;12(1):62. doi: 10.1186/s13229-021-00459-1.


Background: Phelan-McDermid syndrome (PMS) is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder caused by haploinsufficiency of the SHANK3 gene and characterized by global developmental delays, deficits in speech and motor function, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Monogenic causes of ASD such as PMS are well suited to investigations with novel therapeutics, as interventions can be targeted based on established genetic etiology. While preclinical studies have demonstrated that the neuropeptide oxytocin can reverse electrophysiological, attentional, and social recognition memory deficits in Shank3-deficient rats, there have been no trials in individuals with PMS. The purpose of this study is to assess the efficacy and safety of intranasal oxytocin as a treatment for the core symptoms of ASD in a cohort of children with PMS.

Methods: Eighteen children aged 5-17 with PMS were enrolled. Participants were randomized to receive intranasal oxytocin or placebo (intranasal saline) and underwent treatment during a 12-week double-blind, parallel group phase, followed by a 12-week open-label extension phase during which all participants received oxytocin. Efficacy was assessed using the primary outcome of the Aberrant Behavior Checklist-Social Withdrawal (ABC-SW) subscale as well as a number of secondary outcome measures related to the core symptoms of ASD. Safety was monitored throughout the study period.

Results: There was no statistically significant improvement with oxytocin as compared to placebo on the ABC-SW (Mann-Whitney U = 50, p = 0.055), or on any secondary outcome measures, during either the double-blind or open-label phases. Oxytocin was generally well tolerated, and there were no serious adverse events.

Limitations: The small sample size, potential challenges with drug administration, and expectancy bias due to relying on parent reported outcome measures may all contribute to limitations in interpreting results.

Conclusion: Our results suggest that intranasal oxytocin is not efficacious in improving the core symptoms of ASD in children with PMS. Trial registration NCT02710084.

Keywords: ASD; Autism spectrum disorder; Oxytocin; PMS; Phelan-McDermid syndrome; Shank3.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chromosome Deletion
  • Chromosome Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Chromosome Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Chromosomes, Human, Pair 22
  • Humans
  • Oxytocin / therapeutic use


  • Oxytocin

Supplementary concepts

  • Telomeric 22q13 Monosomy Syndrome

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02710084