Love Hormone, Oxytocin Improves Kids' Social Skills

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By Sarah Thomas | August 6, 2014 10:37 AM EST

The love hormone is known to perform many functions, aiding sexual arousal, preparing a woman's body for childbirth and stimulating milk production for breastfeeding. But a recent research by Stanford University revealed that oxytocin also has a great effect on children's social skills, determining how they deal with their peers.

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Autistic children take part in the Horse Therapy Special Children program in Bangkok June 17, 2014

Study author and assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford Karen Parker said that those kids who naturally had high levels of oxytocin appeared more social and warm; they were more savvy at communicating with others and showed a high ability to understand social signals or situations. "The higher your oxytocin levels, the better your social functioning," Parker said.

The love hormone is usually released when people get intimate with each other; this allows them to bond better with each other. Sex, hugging, shaking hands, kissing, holding hands, giving birth and breast feeding are a few activities that cause a release of oxytocin.

The study originally sought to look into the level of oxytocin in children with autism. The researchers explained that for years an impaired oxytocin function was suspected as an underlying cause of autism. Autism is a neuro developmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction. According to the Centre for Disease Control, one out of 68 children suffer from autism.

For the study 79 children with autism, 52 of their unaffected siblings and 62 unrelated children without autism were examined. All of the children were between the ages of 3 and 12. The oxytocin levels in the children's blood were checked; they also used a series of diagnostic tools to test for autism spectrum disorders and overall social ability.

Contrary to their expectations of children with autism to have social deficits, they found that the deficits were worst in kids with the lowest blood oxytocin levels and least in those with the highest oxytocin levels.

They found that oxytocin levels in children with autism did not differ from their unaffected siblings and children without autism but they discovered that oxytocin levels played a key role in improving social functioning in the affected and unaffected alike.

Rob Ring, chief science officer for the advocacy and research organisation Autism Speaks, said that this revelation could help in the treatment of autism. "If oxytocin has a general pro-social effect on individuals, it still very much argues for engaging the oxytocin system for therapeutic reasons. This research shows in people with autism that if you have increasing levels of oxytocin, you have increasing ability in social behaviour. That is valuable knowledge."

Parker explained that oxytocin appeared to be a universal regulator of social functioning in humans. This encompasses both typically developing children as well as those with the severe social deficits they saw in children with autism.

"We found that social functioning was similar between related siblings, and oxytocin levels were way more similar between siblings," Parker said. The researchers also realised that they checked the hormone levels in the blood and not the cerebrospinal fluid.

They said that the study would help in the therapy for children with autism and adults whose levels of the hormone are low, Parker and Ring said. "It may be there's a sub population of people with low oxytocin levels, and they may be the best responders to oxytocin treatment," Parker said. "This may help us hand pick the people we think are going to benefit most from this therapy."

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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(Photo: Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom)
Autistic children take part in the Horse Therapy Special Children program in Bangkok June 17, 2014
(Photo: REUTERS/Chico Ferreira / )
Children wearing Argentina jerseys play soccer at a FIFA public viewing area where fans gathered to watch Argentina play Iran for Group F of the 2014 World Cup
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