Maybe the biggest problem with this story is that a complicated topic like this deserves – indeed, requires – more than 215 words.
Briefest – by far – of the three stories we reviewed on this same topic, this story oversimplified content to the point of producing errors.
The study is a preliminary investigation of the role of oxytocin treatment in autism and was intended to examine the short term effects of the hormone using a standard set of laboratory measures of socialization. The study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting a linkage between autism and oxytocin and a potential avenue of additional research.
The story does not speak to the potential costs associated with a hormone treatment potentially for the life of the person with autism or Aspergers syndrome.
While the published study itself does not quantify the results clearly, which is understandable for preliminary laboratory research, we give the story an unsatisfactory rating for exaggerating the study results, claiming that the subjects, "……dramatically improve their social learning skills and spend more time gazing at pictures of faces after inhaling the social-bonding hormone oxytocin." The study was of short duration and the improvements seen were not across the board and were not long-lasting, as is implied in the story. For comparision, a HealthDay story stated clearly:
There were, however, wide variations in individual responses, the team noted.
"It’s not clear whether this would be effective at all in children or in young adults who had intellectual problems," warned (an independent expert).
Also, scientists would need to come up with a different method of delivery, (one independent expert) said.
"The nasal [inhaled] drugs only work for a few minutes. Potentially it would be very difficult to be using this drug once an hour or something. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense," he pointed out. "But it does point the way to the possibility of raising oxytocin levels with other kinds of compounds to increase oxytocin levels more generally over a longer period of time. I don’t know whether this is a realistic therapy as we have it now but, potentially, in the future it could really help these people whose primary autistic symptoms are having to do with reduction in social activity."
The harms of oxytocin are not discussed in the story. While we do not see a discussion of adverse events in the study report either, and the study was not a real-world trial of a drug, we think the potential harms are worth acknowledging, particularly considering the potential extension of such research to children. Another story included the expert quote, "We have to be careful about the safety and efficacy of oxytocin on pediatric populations."
We do know about the side effects of oxytocin when given over a period of hours to women to induce labor. Allergic reactions and the risk of water intoxication are well-known issues with short term administration of oxytocin. We have limited to no information on the safety of oxytocin administration in children.
The story provides a brief summary of the study results without any context or balanced view. The headlne of the story suggests that oxytocin may help people with Aspergers, a conclusion that is a bit of a reach given the study design and conclusions. Unfortunately, the story does little to attenuate the initial impression provided by the headline.
It seems that the story misinterprets some of the methods. First, the 13 subjects in the study’s main group did not have "Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism" — they had either. Ten had Asperger syndrome, 3 had high-functioning autism. There is debate over whether the diagnoses "Asperberger syndrome" and "high-functioning autism" overlap, but in this study they are treated as separate diagnoses.
Second, it’s a bit misleading to say the study involved "13 subjects with Asperger’s syndrome and a control group." There were, in fact, 13 subjects with Asperger syndrome or mild autism, and they received either the active treatment, oxytocin spray, or a placebo spray. There were another 13 healthy subjects.
Finally, and most importantly, where is any critical analysis of the preliminary nature of this laboratory study and its extraordinarily small sample?
No outside sources are consulted in this very brief story. The sole quote is acknowledged to be from a study coauthor. Although the story is very short, if there were only room for one quote, perhaps some outside perspective would have been warranted.
The story does not speak to current approaches or the lack of current treatments. Although the study is preliminary, a brief comment on the lack of avaiable treatments would have been valuable.
The story does not speak to the availability of oxytocin as a prescription drug or its off label use in the study or – apparently (according to other stories) by many families already.
The article claims that the study is "the first to demonstrate the effects of oxytocin — a hormone that promotes mother-infant bonding, socialization, trust and cooperation — in people diagnosed with Asperger’s." The link between oxytocin and autism has been the subject of investigation for a number of years, including prior studies examining social interactions as well as other symptoms of the disorder. In fact, the study itself cites prior research (#28, Hollander et al) entitled "Oxytocin infusion reduces repetitive behaviors in adults with autistic and Aspberger’s disorders."
While the testing employed in the study may be unique, the novelty of the research is arguable.
We can’t be sure of the extent to which the story was influenced by a news release, so we judge this to be N/A.