Intranasal oxytocin therapy works no better than a placebo against autism. The corresponding study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Some experimental studies and small clinical trials have previously suggested that intranasal oxytocin therapy may reduce social and cognitive impairment among those with autism. Other research, however, has found the treatment to have no positive effect.
Uncertainty about whether or not oxytocin therapy works led researchers to design a multi-site, placebo-controlled trial to see how it affects those with autism.
For the trial, the researchers enrolled 290 children and adolescents aged between 3 and 17 years old. Patients were assigned on a 1:1 ratio according to age, and verbal fluency to either receive oxytocin or a placebo treatment via the nose.
The researchers tracked each participant’s ability to socialize with the 13-item Aberrant Behavior checklist modified Social Withdrawal subscale given at the beginning, middle, and end of the study period. Participants were instructed to take either treatment daily for a period of 24 weeks.
In the end, the researchers analyzed data from 139 participants who took oxytocin and 138 who were given a placebo. While the oxytocin treatment was well-tolerated with few side effects, the researchers ultimately found that it had no significant benefit compared to the placebo.
“Thousands of children with autism spectrum disorder were prescribed intranasal oxytocin before it was adequately tested,” Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, M.D., senior author of the research. “Thankfully, our data show that it is safe. Unfortunately, it is no better than placebo when used daily for months. These results indicate that clinicians and families should insist that there is strong evidence for the safety and benefit of new treatments before they are provided to patients in the clinic.”
The researchers conclude that, based on their results, it is not justifiable to conduct further investigation into oxytocin for autism spectrum disorders.