Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by three core symptom domains: speech and communication abnormalities, social functioning impairments and repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. Oxytocin (OXT) is a nine-amino-acid peptide that is synthesized in the paraventricular and supraoptic nucleus of the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by axon terminals in the posterior pituitary where it plays an important role in facilitating uterine contractions during parturition and in milk let-down. In addition, OXT and the structurally similar peptide arginine vasopressin (AVP) are released within the brain where they play a key role in regulating affiliative behaviours, including sexual behaviour, mother-infant and adult-adult pair-bond formation and social memory/recognition. Finally, OXT has been implicated in repetitive behaviours and stress reactivity. Given that OXT is involved in the regulation of repetitive and affiliative behaviours, and that these are key features of autism, it is believed that OXT may play a role in autism and that OXT may be an effective treatment for these two core symptom domains. In this chapter we review evidence to date supporting a relationship between OXT and autism; we then discuss research looking at the functional role of OXT in autism, as well as a pilot study investigating the therapeutic efficacy of OXT in treating core autism symptom domains. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of directions for future research. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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