Oxytocin is often referred to as the “bonding hormone” because of the role it plays in cementing relationships among humans in groups. Last week, a study showed that the chemical is important for strengthening monogamous relationships.

And a new study released Monday shows that a single nasal spray of synthetic oxytocin may help ease the social challenges facing autistic children.

Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center and other institutions found that a nasal shot of synthetic oxytocin increased an autistic child’s brain function, especially in areas associated with social processing and expression.

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Oxytocin and Autism

The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 17 autistic children ages 8 to 16.5. Researchers used a standardized socialization test and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which allow doctors to track brain function in real-time.

After being given a dose of oxytocin, the children performed a set of tasks, such as classifying a person’s mental state based on an image of his or her eyes—a social judgment—and categorizing images of automobiles—a non-social judgment.

The brain scans showed more activity during social tasks in parts of the brain associated with reward, social perception, and emotional awareness after the children were given oxytocin.

Researchers found that the children given oxytocin nasal spray were also more likely to interact socially, to display fewer repetitive behaviors, and to show an overall improvement in social awareness. The scientists say oxytocin may work by increasing the reward value of social interaction, which is important because the brain regions associated with socialization are often under-active in autistic patients.

The new research echoes the findings of a similar 2010 study on the therapeutic benefits of oxytocin for autism, but the new study included children under the age of 12.

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Other Benefits of Oxytocin

Ongoing research shows the important part oxytocin plays in trust, fear, and bonding, whether between a child and a mother during breastfeeding or between members of a married pair.

Recent studies have shown that a dose of oxytocin nasal spray may actually promote fidelity. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that men in a relationship were more likely to distance themselves from women other than their girlfriends or wives after a shot of oxytocin.

Besides autism (and marital woes), synthetic oxytocin is also being explored as a potential treatment for conditions like social anxiety disorder.

While synthetic oxytocin (sold under the brand names Pitocin and Syntocinon) can be ordered online, researchers say using oxytocin to treat autism is only safe under the strict supervision of a clinical trial.