New findings from the Stanford University School of Medicine may have discovered a chemical link to the social difficulties some autistic children face. The research has identified that low levels of a hormone involved in social communication—vasopressin—correlates to the ability, or inability, of autistic children to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of others.
Since hormone levels in the brain were being looked at, a proper means of measurement had to be determined. Researchers compared simultaneous blood samples to the cerebrospinal fluid in 28 people (who were having their fluid collected for unrelated medical reasons) and found that vasopressin levels in the blood were consistent with those in the brain. With this verification, they were free to move on to examining correlations with social function.
The specific form of social function looked at in the study was a concept referred to as the “theory of mind.” The theory of mind is the ability of a person to understand how others can have different thoughts, intentions, or reasoning from themselves.
Following animal testing, which showed a correlation between vasopressin levels and social function, 159 children between the ages of three and 12 were recruited for behavioral testing. Among the children, 57 had autism, 47 had an autistic sibling, and 55 were non-autistic children with no autistic siblings. All children were given standard assessments of social responsiveness and gave blood samples that were tested for vasopressin.
It was at this point that the results were both intriguing and slightly confusing. In the children with autism, low vasopressin was found to be correlated with low theory of mind ability. However, in the children without autism, no correlation was found.
Researchers have no explanation for this and admit it warrants further research to narrow down the exact relation between vasopressin and theory of mind ability, but the data seems strong enough to point to some connection existing.
Researchers hope that further investigation will lead to ways to use vasopressin to help treat the social impairments that are characteristic of autism.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Carson D.S., et al., “Arginine Vasopressin is a Blood-Based Biomarker of Social Functioning in Children with Autism,” PLOS ONE 2015; 10(7): e0132224, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132224.
“Low Levels of Hormone Linked to Social Deficit in Autism,” Stanford Medicine News Center web site, July 22 2015; https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/07/low-levels-of-hormone-linked-to-social-deficit-in-autism-study.html.