A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2016 | Number 3, Volume 30

Oxytocin may not work correctly in “stress buffer” role in ASD

In children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the hormone oxytocin may not protect well against stress, according to a new study. 

Oxytocin is currently being tested as a treatment for ASD because it facilitates social behavior. However, Blythe Corbett and colleagues note that it also serves as a “stress buffer,” rising when people are exposed to stressors that elevate levels of the hormone cortisol. 

To examine the interplay of cortisol and oxytocin in ASD, Corbett and colleagues administered a single low dose of hydrocortisone (pharmaceutical cortisol) or a placebo to 14 children with high-functioning ASD and 11 neurotypical controls in a double-blind, crossover experiment. All of the children were between 8 and 12 years of age. 

The researchers report that cortisol and oxytocin levels were comparable in children with ASD and controls at baseline. However, the two groups responded very differently to the cortisol challenge. In the neurotypical group, levels of oxytocin rose after hydrocortisone administration, indicating that it played a stress-buffering role. In the children with ASD, however, oxytocin levels remained unchanged or even decreased in response to the challenge. 

The researchers comment, “While oxytocin has been tied to the social ability of children with ASD, the diminished moderating effect of oxytocin may play a contributory role in the heightened stress often observed in children with ASD especially during social interactions. In other words, in addition to [these children] experiencing heightened stress in response to novel and changing situations, it appears that oxytocin does not assist in ameliorating stress once activated.” 


“Comparing oxytocin and cortisol regulation in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, hydrocortisone challenge pilot study in children with autism and typical development,” Blythe A. Corbett, Karen L. Bales, Deanna Swain, Kevin Sanders, Tamara A. R. Weinstein, and Louis J. Muglia, Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Vol. 8, No. 32, 2016 (online). Address: Blythe Corbett, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Vanderbilt University, PMB 40, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203, [email protected]