Oxytocin and Autism II

Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter, and one which has been implicated in autistic behaviors. Known as the “love hormone,” there’s a lot more to it than that. According to Psychology Today,

It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.

As I have noted before, oxytocin has a dark side, meaning low levels of oxytocin not only reduce one’s desires for social interaction, but also reduces the tendency to engage in “groupthink,” the worst versions of which are racism and sexism. To the extent that autistics don’t engage in in-group/out-group thinking, we have a general tendency to not engage in racism and sexism.

However, do note many of the behaviors noted above. I suspect that it’s not just any empathy that’s affected by lower levels of oxytocin, but the specific kind autistics have problems with. Coincidentally, the kind of empathy we autistics have problems with is the same empathy that actually makes people favor their in-groups over out-groups and thus can make people behave in racist and less moral ways.

Also note that oxytocin is as much the sex molecule as the love molecule. I have read that many autistics have little to no interest in sex. While that’s certainly not universal (I’m sure other hormones, etc. are involved and affect sex drive as well), it seems to be much more common among autistics than neurotypicals. Low levels of oxytocin would explain this phenomenon. Ironically, since having sex increases oxytocin levels, those who lack interest in sex due to low oxytocin levels are behaving in such a way as to maintain low oxytocin levels.

The connection to trust is a bit odd to me, as I find autistics to be generally quite trusting. However, it may make sense if trust is tied to in-group members, and distrust to out-group members. Without that distinction, it may be that we are simply more trusting of out-group members, and thus we seem more trusting overall.

Here is an interesting overview of the research to day on the connection between oxytocin and autism. I have also written about the connection between touch and increasing oxytocin levels in a post titled Hugs Help.

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The Complex Biochemistry of the Autism-GI Connection

From the “I’m not at all surprised at this,” section, researchers have found GI problems in autistic people to be genetically linked to their autism. Now, while I have connected autism to leaky gut through glutamine, these researchers have connected autism and the GI tract through serotonin.

Serotonin is derived from tryptophan, an amino acid, and serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin, three brain hormones that affect social behavior, are all activated by vitamin D hormone. There is recent research that shows a connection between this system and autism. It is perhaps not surprising that a system involving neurotransmitters plays a role in certain kinds of autism.

It turns out that low vitamin D affects the levels of these hormones. And, coincidentally, when I went to see the doctor a few years ago for a checkup, he told me I had low vitamin D.

Consider this fact from Mercola: “vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means if you have a gastrointestinal condition that affects your ability to absorb fat, you may have lower absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D as well. This includes gut conditions like Crohn’s, celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and inflammatory bowel disease.”

All of those gut conditions are caused by leaky gut. Leaky gut is caused by too much glutamate relative to glutamine. This in turn affects the ability to absorb vitamin D, which in turn affects the production of the above neurotransmitters. Including serotonin, which in turn affects the gut. 

I have vitamin D and glutamine tablets in my cupboard. It looks like I’ll be taking them every day from now on. And asking Daniel’s doctor about whether or not Daniel has a vitamin D deficiency. Because Daniel has severe GI problems.

Executive Functioning, Creativity, and Autism

New research has shown that creativity mostly takes place in the cerebellum, while the executive functioning of the frontal lobe actually restricts creativity.

One of the features of autism (and ADD/ADHD) is impaired executive functioning. Among the things executive functioning does, according to Web MD:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience

When your executive functioning is impaired, you have difficulty with the above abilities. I recently wrote about the problems people with autism have with the last one on the list. The inability to make use of prior knowledge, then, is an executive functioning problem. While this seems to contradict my claims in the previous post, the place where concepts are formed — the hippocampus — is also a place where executive functioning takes place. And there are impairments with the hippocampus in those with autism — in particular, there are issues with oxytocin, about which I have written before. And as we have seen before, GABA is also involved. Those “unwanted” thoughts are the source of creativity.

All of this points to a brain that is structurally and biochemically different from more typical brains. And the connection between executive functioning and creativity also explains why autistic people tend to be very creative.

Oxytcin and Autism

A recent finding on oxytocin is of great interest to many with ASD.

It seems that “A pair of researchers, one in Israel the other in the Netherlands has found that volunteers given oxytocin tend to be more willing to lie if it benefits a group they belong to.” Now consider the fact that there seems to be less oxytocin in those with autism than in neurotypicals. This would suggest that those with autism are less willing to lie, even if it benefits the group to which they belong. This would of course be interpreted as “social awkwardness” by those for whom it is natural to lie to benefit their group (such as their family). The neurotypicals in the autistic person’s group are wondering, “Why wouldn’t you back me up on that?” while the autistic person is saying, “But I was only telling the truth.”

Oxytocin is an interesting molecule. It is the trust molecule. It is a love molecule. And it is a divisive molecule. Specifically, it seems to be a strongly in-group molecule. The kind of trust it fosters, for example, is among those within your group. Those with autism are trusting — but they/we are typically trusting of everyone. We don’t in-group, out-group (that is, unless we are specifically taught to be, we tend to be naturally non-racist, non-sexist, etc.). Which, for all the benefits lost with lower oxytocin, is something I would consider a significant gain.

Hugs Help

Several years ago I came up with the idea that we need to hug Daniel more, and that we need to hug him for a good, long time when we do hug him.

I came up with this idea after I read that autistic children who are given nasal injections of oxytocin became more social for a while. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone,” because it’s associated with feelings of love.

It has been shown that many autistic children have low oxytocin levels. When you increase oxytocin levels,  many of their social behaviors improve. Since oxytocin is made naturally in response to skin-on-skin touch, I began making sure I held and hugged Daniel more—which has had a remarkably positive effect. We also noticed that if we hug Daniel when he is most upset, he calms down.

Of course, hugging an autistic child isn’t necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s not uncommon for autistic children to resist being touched, let alone hugged. But of course, if you don’t hug or touch them, you won’t be able to build up their oxytocin, and that means the effects of low oxytocin will continue. So it’s worth the effort to get those hugs in. And the more you hug them, the more they’ll let themselves be hugged.

The key is that you have skin-to-skin contact, and the hugs need to last at least 20 seconds, as that is what stimulates oxytocin production. Even holding hands for more than 20 seconds will get the oxytocin flowing.

Daniel’s social anxieties are fairly mild. And Daniel is increasingly likely to look at you when you talk to him. I am convinced hugging him more has helped. I have seen the behavioral changes. He will always have them to a certain degree, but if Daniel can overcome some of these social issues, while retaining the benefits of autism, Daniel should have a great life. Hugs definitely help.