Background: Social impairments are central to the syndrome of autism. The neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) has been implicated in the regulation of social behavior in animals but has not yet been examined in autistic subjects.
Methods: To determine whether autistic children have abnormalities in OT, midday plasma samples from 29 autistic and 30 age-matched normal children, all prepubertal, were analyzed by radioimmunoassay for levels of OT.
Results: Despite individual variability and overlapping group distributions, the autistic group had significantly lower plasma OT levels than the normal group. OT increased with age in the normal but not the autistic children. Elevated OT was associated with higher scores on social and developmental measures for the normal children, but was associated with lower scores for the autistic children. These relationships were strongest in a subset of autistic children identified as aloof.
Conclusions: Although making inferences to central OT functioning from peripheral measurement is difficult, the data suggest that OT abnormalities may exist in autism, and that more direct investigation of central nervous system OT function is warranted.