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Hormones and Autism: Looking at Vasopressin

When reporting on scientific developments in researching the causes behind and possible cures for autism, we have tended to focus on three areas: genetics, neurology, and environmental factors. However a new study is pushing another biological factor into the spotlight: the role of hormones in the development of autism.


In this case it is the hormone vasopressin, a hormone that helps to regulate blood pressure, and its relation to an individual’s brain chemistry. In particular, a research team released a study co-authored by Karen Parker, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University of Medicine, that puts forth the hypothesis that low levels of vasopressin may play a role in better understanding the social difficulties that children with autism encounter.


“Vasopressin may be a biological marker of, and potential drug target for, social impairments in autism,” Parker said. “There are currently no medications that effectively treat the social deficits in people with autism.”


In looking at the social skills that are sometimes lacking in children with autism, the researchers placed particular emphasis on one called “theory of mind,” which refers to the realization that other people have different perspectives, feelings, and experiences. According to Parker’s team, the children in their study that tended to have the biggest difficulty with theory of mind tasks also had lower levels of vasopressin present in their brains.


However, the study, which was published July 22 in the journal PLOS ONE, could only establish this association between lower levels of vasopressin and theory of mind objectives in children with autism. Whether there exists a direct one-to-one relationship between vasopressin and social difficulties remains to be proven.


To conduct the research, the study first looked at the vasopressin levels in the blood to the levels present in cerebrospinal fluid of 28 children and adults in order to ascertain that the levels were similar so that they could use the blood levels of vasopressin as a surrogate for levels in the brain.


From there, the researchers compared blood vasopressin levels in three additional groups: one group composed of 57 children with autism; a second with 47 normally developing children who had siblings with autism; and a third with 55 normally developing children. The children were between the ages of 3 and 12 and underwent testing for their cognitive skills, social responsiveness, and ability to recognize others’ emotions and theory of mind.


The levels of vasopressin varied from low to high across all three groups. The only time the levels seemed to matter were on theory of mind scores among children with autism. In kids without autism, vasopressin levels didn’t seem to affect their performance on theory of mind tests.


Experts in the field are making it clear that this research is still very preliminary, but succeeded in paving the way for future research into the effects of vasopressin, along with the role other hormones play in the development of autism.