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Oxytocin plasma concentrations in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: correlation with autistic symptomatology.

Taurines R, Schwenck C, Lyttwin B, Schecklmann M, Jans T, Reefschläger L, Geissler J, Gerlach M, Romanos M., Atten. Defic. Hyperact. Disord., 2014, 6, 231-9.

Findings from research in animal models and humans have shown a clear role for the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) on complex social behaviors. This is also true in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous studies on peripheral OT concentrations in children and young adults have reported conflicting results with the initial studies presenting mainly decreased OT plasma levels in ASD compared to healthy controls. Our study therefore aimed to further investigate changes in peripheral OT concentrations as a potential surrogate for the effects observed in the central nervous system (CNS) in ASD. OT plasma concentrations were assessed in 19 male children and adolescents with ASD, all with an IQ > 70 (age 10.7 ± 3.8 years), 17 healthy male children (age 13.6 ± 2.1 years) and 19 young male patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a clinical control group (age 10.4 ± 1.9 years) using a validated radioimmunoassay. Analysis of covariance revealed significant group differences in OT plasma concentrations (F(2, 48) = 9.574, p < 0.001, η (2) = 0.285; plasma concentrations ASD 19.61 ± 7.12 pg/ml, ADHD 8.05 ± 5.49 pg/ml, healthy controls 14.43 ± 9.64 pg/ml). Post hoc analyses showed significantly higher concentrations in children with ASD compared to ADHD (p < 0.001). After Bonferroni correction, there was no significant difference in ASD in comparison with healthy controls (p = 0.132). A significant strong correlation between plasma OT and autistic symptomatology, assessed by the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, was observed in the ASD group (p = 0.013, r = 0.603). Patients with ADHD differed from healthy control children by significantly decreased OT concentrations (p = 0.014). No significant influences of the covariates age, IQ, medication and comorbidity could be seen. Our preliminary results point to a correlation of OT plasma concentrations with autistic symptom load in children with ASD and a modulation of the OT system also in the etiologically and phenotypically overlapping disorder ADHD. Further studies in humans and animal models are warranted to clarify the complex association of the OT system with social impairments as well as stress-related and depressive behavior and whether peripheral findings reflect primary changes of OT synthesis and/or release in relevant areas of the CNS.