The factors that contribute to an individual’s ability to engage in a social environment are subtle, complex, and remain largely unknown to the field of neuroscience.While this may currently be the case, it may not be so for long, as new research has begun to reveal at least one correlating factor: the presence and varying levels of peripheral oxytocin in the endocrine system and blood plasma. The presence of the oxytocin hormone seems to be directly correlated with an individual's ability to read social cues and, more broadly, engage in a social environment. With this knowledge, it may be possible to mitigate the effects of certain mental disorders connected to social cognition, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Recent Findings and Research
A recent study found that men who tested to have higher levels of oxytocin in their blood plasma had a greater capacity for more uncomfortable social situations, displaying a greater empathy and sociability when presented with various scenarios. Interestingly, these findings yielded no significant correlation between said oxytocin levels and the empathy levels of the individuals in question. This of course seems counterintuitive, given that the ability to empathize and pick up on social cues are typically considered to be at least loosely related. While more research must be conducted in this field before any concrete conclusions can be drawn, the researchers speculate that this apparent disconnect exists because oxytocin exists and functions at the subconscious level, whereas the act of empathizing may require a more conscious effort .
Another study conducted on the subjects found that individuals with higher levels of oxytocin in their systems tend to seek out more social situations and stimuli. The individuals tested in the study were presented with two rooms, each containing two stimuli that were either both social (two chairs) or both non-social (a table and plant), with the distance between the two stimuli differing between the two rooms. Individuals who tested to have higher levels of oxytocin chose rooms with shorter distances between the stimuli, but only when the stimuli were social. The researchers found no correlation between oxytocin levels and preference for distance between non-social stimuli, strengthening the theory that oxytocin governs social cognition and willingness to allow others into their personal space .
Intranasal Sprays: Pseudo-Medicine or Legitimate Treatment?
Given these recent findings, the next logical step was to move into medical trials and determine whether supplementing the endocrine system of someone with social cognition deficits, such as an individual diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), would meaningfully benefit their lives. The relevant research that followed seemed to point to this being exactly the case. One study found that adults with ASD asked to perform social-cognitive tasks performed 63% better after receiving low doses of oxytocin (8 international units) intranasally . Because this oxytocin dose did not have a major effect on peripheral oxytocin levels in blood plasma, it appears that this improvement in social cognition does not imbalance the body’s hormone levels in general. Another study found that a similar low dose of intranasal oxytocin caused children suffering from ASD to experience heightened activity in the brain’s mesocorticolimbic systems, improving their ability to anticipate and respond to rewards in their environment . All studies conducted used a bioluminescence enzyme immunoassay to test the levels of oxytocin in the participants .
Looking to the future, intranasal oxytocin offers a promising branch of treatment for those suffering from disorder-induced social cognition deficits. However, progress through the FDA’s safety checks and requirements remain slow, and oxytocin supplements may require several years to arrive at the medicinal market.
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