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Hormone-infused nasal spray found to help people with autism


3 Star

Hormone-infused nasal spray found to help people with autism

Our Review Summary

Only brief caveats are provided. Meantime, these sensational quotes go unchallneged:

  • "It’s possible it can become a cure" from the lead researcher
  • "Many families are using it [oxytocin] with success and reporting improvement" from an advocacy group leader.


Why This Matters

The story is important since it highlights what is a growing impression in the medical literature of the importance of oxytocin in people with autism.  Autism and the related syndrome of Aspergers can be devastating disorders and there are no satisfactory treatments available at the present time for the socialization deficiencies seen.  The growing evidence of the role of oxytocin in the disorder is an important step toward an understanding of the disorders and in the possibility of designing treatments targeting specific symptoms.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

If a story is not going to challenge an advocate saying, "Many families are using it with success and reporting improvement," then it certainly can tell us how much it’s costing those families.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory
The story may have provided an overly optimistic view of the results and their applicability in the real world. For comparison, 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 (one 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."

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


The study was of relatively short duration and no side effects were reported. The story does note that more research in children particularly is needed on the safety of oxytocin. However, the story could have noted that oxytocin is not without side effects based on usage in adults.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story provides an overly optimistic view of the research results without any of the usual caveats; this is an early study of the effects of oxytocin administered acutely to a small group of subjects, and the outcomes were measured using a set of standardized tests in a laboratory setting that may not reflect the real world. The story could be faulted further fpr the addition of comments from advocates who provide only anecdotal evidence.

The story even allows the study author to claim "it’s possible it can become a cure" when used in children. This was a laboratory study in adults.

The story does provide several tempering comments, but overall it presents a very positive face to what is in reality a very early research project that simply adds to a body of knowledge.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The article does not engage in disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story does use several independent sources apart from the study authors. The study authors themselves declared no conflicts of interest.

We welcomed the balanced addition of Clara Lanjonchere’s cautionary note in the last paragraph. It provides balance to the story, offsetting the enthusiasm expressed by other sources. 

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory
The story does discuss the off-label use of oxytocin in children with autism, but it is silent on the availability of other forms of treatment for the disorder. What are they?  And how might they compare?

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The treatment, oxytocin nasal spray, is not commercially available as such and is not approved for this indication. These facts are not explicitly noted in the story. However, the story does note the apparent use of the drug for this purpose by some, without noting the lack of FDA approval of the product. Although this could have been much more clear, the story does make it clear that some people are getting the stuff somehow.  It would have been relatively easy to explain how.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story notes that there have been previous studies of oxytocin in autism.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


 The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory


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