Home > Science > Social skill in a pill?

Social skill in a pill?

As we learn more about the unique behaviors of different animal species and how circuits in the brain control those behaviors, we will come upon more options for treating brain-based disorders.  In the case of autism spectrum disorders, a surprising potential treatment for social challenges emerged from the little-known prairie vole. The new research was published in April online in Biological Psychiatry and supported by Autism Speaks.

Prairie voles may resemble pet store hamsters, but their ordinary appearance obscures unique behavior.  These voles are among the 5% of all mammals that are monogamous—that is they form a mating pair that remains for the life of the animal.  Contrast this seemingly virtuous performance with a similar species—the meadow vole—that engages a much more promiscuous mating strategy.  For each animal, the chosen mating strategy makes sense in terms of available mating partners and other environmental pressures. However, these mating strategies also produce consequences in terms of the animal’s “social skills” and the neural circuits which serve these behaviors.

Prairie vole females, who mate for life, are relatively picky.  So, when introduced to a new male, not surprisingly, female prairie voles tend to a be careful—wanting more than just a single visit before choosing her mate. This situation affords researchers an opportunity that Larry Young, Ph.D. at Emory University exploits in the partner preference task.

The partner preference task enabled researchers to dissect the social learning that occurs in voles soon after meeting.  A female prairie vole is paired with a male for up to 24 hours so they can meet, but not mate.  During this time, researchers can give the voles different drug compounds to manipulate this first date in various ways.  From the sensory cues, to the rewarding squirts of neurotransmitter, Dr. Young and his colleagues are learning the essential ingredients for effective social learning.

The first essential ingredient is oxytocin.  This well-studied hormone is involved in birth and lactation and has more recently been shown to enhance the much more subtle social perception of trust in humans. Oxytocin administration has also been shown to increase the amount of gaze to the eye region of a face in individuals with autism.

Pair bonding in the prairie vole requires oxytocin.  The brain regions that bind this hormone are closely associated with areas of the brain that signal reward and the “reward neurotransmitter”, dopamine.  In fact, if the brain binding sites for dopamine are blocked by a competing chemical, pair bonds between prairie voles do not form.  This result reveals that the reward system must actively participate for these strong social bonds to form.

Recall the very similar-looking but very differently behaving vole called the meadow vole.  What creates their very different patterns of social engagement in these two species?  Dr. Young and colleagues showed that the distribution of receptors for the hormone oxytocin was a primary difference between the two species of animals.  In fact, female meadow voles that were made to express oxytocin receptors in a prairie vole pattern began behaving just like prairie voles with regard to mating behavior.  The promiscuous voles became monogamous by changing the expression of receptors in the brain.

This background would seem to be an elaborate set up to discuss the drug that makes the difference, but the value that these animals bring to research can not be underestimated.   The overt differences in behavior led to the discovery of hidden differences in brain physiology, which can be manipulated using drugs to improve the lives of humans.

Using a compound called d-cycloserine (DCS) the research team was able to enhance the cognitive processes involved in developing a partner preference in prairie voles. The changes are likely due to two factors:  1) an enhancement of the sensory cues that accompany a social interaction, which are primarily smell-based for rodents.  2) a boost of the memory of the social interaction, so that the partner will be recognized and associated with a positive encounter when they next meet.  The dose of DCS matters as only a low dose—one that increases glutamate neurotransmission—elicits a bias for choosing the previously met partner over the stranger.  Higher doses of DCS have a different effect on the receptor causing an overall reduction in glutamate transmission and providing no bias in the partner preference task.

What is the relevance of this to autism?  Imagine if one were able to enhance the interest of social stimuli prior to a therapy session.  Could the sort of compounds Dr. Young and his colleagues are investigating be beneficial when used in addition to behavioral therapy for helping individuals on the spectrum focus develop healthy patterns of social engagement?  In an preliminary study published in 2004 by a different group of researchers, DCS decreased social withdrawal in individuals with ASD as measured by the Aberrant Behavior Checklist.  Dr. Young and colleagues continue their research with DCS and other compounds that improve the salience of social features of an environment.  We look forward to seeing more of these results translate into meaningful treatments for people as this research direction progresses.

  1. Katie Wright
    June 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm | #1

    I like that this research is directed towards improving the lives of people with autism NOW.
    We tried oxytocin 3 years ago. For us the benefit was minimal but I know other families who saw real real positive change.

    This research is good but oxytocin is not really new. Right now we are trying iv glutatione which has really helped my son. Kids w/ autism are often hyper vigilant and cannot regulate their/ bodies or emotions well. Almost none none produce adequate amounts of glutatione. This seems to really help the tougher cases.

  2. dragonflymom
    June 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm | #2

    I have a question – where are your children on the spectrum?
    I have a high funtioning austistic son and was curious as to wether this glutatione would benefit him?
    where do you get it?

  3. Katie Wright
    June 12, 2011 at 10:32 am | #3

    I don’t know if you child needs glutatione. Best to ask a DAN! doctor. My son is very severe. However, I know you can try it in a lotion, which is harmless. We do it via iv because Christian’s body is so screwed up and his mood swings so frequent. The ARI- autism website has lots of god info.

    In my experience oxytocin can give HF kids a little boost. It comes in a nasal spay and is easier to administer. I have not know it to make giant difference in any kid’s life but every little bit helps.

    Good luck!

  4. gollyanne lynch
    June 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm | #4

    i’ve just entered my 70th year of being a social isolate (i-so-late that, by the time i understand even a little bit, the opportunity is past and i have been passed by…again). Gazing at that precious pic of the prairie voles’ family life brought tears to my heart. i’d have given anything to have grown up with the chance to experience that!

    Please keep on tugging on this thread of research for the generations of children and young(er) adults it may transform into loving husbands and wives and offspring! Granting funds for this kind of practical research is indeed PRACTICAL and KIND!

    …and for all of y’all Spectrumy older adults ground down (vs. grounded among the folks all around us) like me, hang on and find ways to bear fruit anyWay! ~ in Jesus’ Loving Strength and Strengthening Love, enough for each day, thru all our daze…

  5. Izzy
    June 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm | #5

    Is it necessary though? I don’t think it is…I know that I’d hate to be medicated into neurotypicality. My autism makes me who I am. My fear is that if a cure is developed, it will become an expectation that ALL autistics become “cured”. Who says we need cures? I’ve always felt personally that the main motivation for curing autism is a selfish one; nobody consults us high functioning autistics unless we assert ourselves, and we don’t really know what the so called “low functioning” autistics want. I’m not sure it’s fair for Autism Speaks to be a place for neurotypicals to speak on our behalf.

    But that’s just how I feel.

    • Shannon
      June 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm | #6

      Izzy, you have a completely valid point, and I am sincerely appreciative of your insight.

    • June 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm | #7

      Yeah, I’m not sure about the whole “curing” thing either. I don’t have autism myself, but my little brother does and a few of my friends have Asperger’s. If my little brother took the medication, the main thing I’m worried about is if the medication would cause a change in his personality itself and if it would hurt him. Yes, he’s rather violent at times – actually, my face is still a little sore from when he punched me the other day because he was upset – but I still love him anyways. He has therapy and things of that sort and I think that therapy is a better thing for him than medication. Then again, the spectrum is so broad that there’s probably people who need more than just therapy itself. But for my brother, I don’t care whether he has autism or not; I love him just as he is.
      The same goes for my friends. They’re my friends and it doesn’t matter if they aren’t neurotypical. God made them the way they are and they’re amazing no matter what. :)

  6. June 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm | #8

    When you live with a very violent child on the spectrum like I do, reaching out to the medical community for help is NOT the same as trying to “cure” him, and I really wish that people who think that “we” are trying to “cure” our loved ones with ASD would come over & let my 9 year old beat the living crap out of them and their other children, so that you know an ounce of the pain in my heart. Or when he becomes a 6ft 5in 220lb man at 18-19 and he beats the crap out of someone that told him “no, you can’t ……fill in the blank” YOU go do his jail time. Hey I have an idea, YOU do what works for you, and WE will do what works out the best for our families and everybody can mind their own business.
    But that’s just how I feel.

    • June 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm | #9

      I know your pain Barbara B. My son is 23 & 6’2″, 274lbs. Thankfully he goes to a really good day program, but the other day he had a terribly explosive episode where we had to call 911. Guess who they sent? Two armed policemen. He was forced to the ground & handcuffed. After it was over, we all understood that it had to be done, but it still tore our hearts out to witness it. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, but of course by the time he got there, he was fine and there was nothing they could do. At least this time with me all bloodied & bruised they didn’t think i was making it all up, I would trade my soul for something to help him when he goes into a panic! I’m greatful to researchers who are trying to help. Unless you have lived with a low functioning ASD person there is no way you can understand the need.

    • Shannon
      June 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm | #10

      Barbara, as the mother of a pddnos child, I cannot begin to fathom your pain. With that said, your pain does not negate the opinions of others. In such a dynamic, diverse community we should support each other in every way we can. I understand, at least on some level, the frustration that comes from feeling so helpless, and my prayer for you is that you can find the comfort and peace we all long for. Best of blessings to you!

  7. Jennifer Schewe
    June 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm | #11

    To see my 20-year-old son not go through the pain of isolating himself because he struggles to make connections with others, would be worth it. It is not that others are not accepting, it is that the process is so difficult for him he would rather stay holed up in his room on the computer. I see him living a very lonely life and it breaks my heart. If there was something that could make it easier for him, he would love it.

  8. June 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm | #12

    I doubt that this will help most autistic kids. I believe my kids — who have autistic spectrum disorders — are bonded to me. I don’t think their social awkwardness is a result of lack of bonding, but rather because of some missing. altered, or damaged circuitry in the brain.

    If there are a few individuals who would be helped by this, it would be because not everyone who is categorized as on the spectrum in fact has the same disease.

  9. June 14, 2011 at 3:30 pm | #13

    Izzy, while I see your point, those of us dealing with ASD kids like Barbara’s (and mine) should have the opportunity to have options for decision making to improve the quality of our family lives-which includes both the lives of our ASD children AND the lives of the entire family. No one in my family denies that my son’s autism is an integral part of who he is…and living with him has made our large family who we are. We like who we are becoming. BUT…if there are tools available to improve on that “who-ness” then who is to say we shouldn’t have the option? Like ANY kind of life equipment, isn’t it better to have an knowledge of those tools available to you? Do you, a HF adult, seek new knowledge and experiences to improve yourself? To learn new things? Do you look for new ways to interact socially or to communicate? (I don’t know you, nor do I presume to, so please bear with me.) There are many tools out there for people of all kinds–self-help books, classes, therapy, medication, clubs–looking to improve their quality of life. As parents, we have to make our best effort to be informed and aware of options for our children. Example..my ASD son has many ‘bonus features’…one of them is profound deafness. When he was 2, we opted to go with a cochlear implant for him; NOT because we wanted to “cure” him, but because we wanted him to have all the tools available to him. It worked well for him, but when he was 7, he simply refused to wear it anymore. Did we make a mistake? Nope…just gave him an option. If, when he is able to better understand the social expectations placed on him and accept responsibility for his behavior (IF that’s ever possible), he wants to discontinue the medication that enables him to do so now, then we will certainly consider his desires. Like Barbara, however, I tire of people who are not living my life suggesting that they know my motives or that I’m taking the easy way out by helping my son improve his life with pharmaceutical intervention. (And PLEASE don’t take away MY anti-depressants!!)

  10. June 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm | #14

    I think every family with a child/or children with Autism or on the spectrum needs to do what is best for their children and their family. I have a child that can be violent and medicine with other therapies has helped! As a mother of a child with violent tendencies is heartbreaking especially when they don’t want to be that way. In my situation my child want to be like all of my other children! Izzy I think it is great that you are comfortable in your skin with who you are! With me I am not looking for a cure but looking for things that will truly help my child cope and function successfully in the future! I also want my child to a have a positive self esteem! Bottom line is we all love our children and want to do want we think is best for them and our families! If something works for one family and not for another family so be it! We need to learn to be supportive of each other and not judge what each family does!

  11. Kathleen
    June 15, 2011 at 1:58 am | #15

    Help! Help! Help! I am new to this site. My daughter is going to be 3 years old and was just diagnosed with Autism at Kennedy Kreiger Institute 2 weeks ago. I am so confused because I don’t know what is going to be best for her. I am being offered a class through the state, but the Kennedy Kreiger Institute is saying she should be in a class specifically for autistic children full time centering on communication. I don’t know what is the best way to go???!! I have visited the preschool- Intermediate Unit 12 and it is very nice. They are offering physical therapy, speech and social skills classes but only two or three days per week-two hours per day. She seemed to do well there and not so well at Kennedy Kreiger for the evaluation. It seemed very clinical to me and she was really uneasy. She only has scripted speech and very severe sensory issues, especially with eating. She has good days and bad days. She goes into these ” panic states that some of you are describing and that worries me with other children since she is a little bigger than most kids her age ( she is three but looks more like 5 or 6 in height) I am afraid she will try to cling onto one of them when she is scared and hurt them accidentally. I am worried about alot with her not being able to tell me how she is feeling or what is wrong…alot of weirdos in this world. I would home school her in a minute but I honestly don’t know how. She does well with the IEP therapists that come to our home, and gets pretty exhausted after just a little time with them. The Intermediate units view is that being around other children who have delays but are not autistic may help her to learn from them. Kennedy wants her for a slew of programs that she is only on the waiting list for. I just felt uneasy with how they seemed very excited to learn her cousin is also autistic and a girl and wanted her to come in right away. I don’t want her overstressed just for the sake of research, Kennedy Kreiger is about a 2 hour drive out of state and she HATES long car rides, but I don’t want to deny her something that is in her best interests….PLEASE any advice is truly, truly appreciated!!!!

  12. June 15, 2011 at 9:23 am | #16

    Every child is different & needs care designed specifically for them. Public schools are required by law to provide that. Insist on an aid just for her if you go the public route. You need to get an advocate for her. They know about programs & her rights. Call your omsbudsman in your state & they should be able to get you in touch with Protection & Advocacy in your area. There are special grant programs everywhere that you will need to get on a waiting list for & also disabilaty from Social Security. Most therapies are very expensive. Two hour drives every day would be too much for most children but maybe they would have programs once or twice a month that would be of benefit or possibly they could send someone to the school. Don’t be bullied into agreeing to anything. Everyone thinks they know what is best but ultimatly, you know your child. Trust in what you feel. I wish I could tell you the right way to go, but really there is no right or wrong. It is just trial & error and there will be alot of error before you find what works. You will need to get a large file box to keep all the paperwork that you will be getting. Keeping it all in once spot will help. Look for support groups in your area to help you cope. If you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be any help to her.

  13. Bailey
    September 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm | #17

    I have twins with autism and they are going to be 15 this November. They are not very high functioning, they are my world though. They are at times extremely violent and i cry. They are big boys, 5’9 185lbs.
    My twins take medication, there is simply no other way for them to live their lives. They can’t even sleep on their own without a pill, it just has always been that way. I am aware of the side effects of many medications as i am a pharmacy technician and would love for them to only take one. A pill to help the “autism” if even a little bit would be a blessing! My days are long and i have nobody to turn to for support. I have a husband who works a lot and thinks he knows what’s best. The twins preferre me to their father, he just talks with too much bass. The other day the got slapped! Bottom line is i would love to have some friends or maybe even one day go out with my husband or all my kids and not have to fight the restaurant patrons for staring at at us! I hope this drug comes out before i die, i would love to live a less stressed life!

  14. September 3, 2011 at 10:59 am | #18

    You need to find support groups in your area. Don’t do like I did & wait until you almost break. Look for Day Centers that can keep them for a few hours. The term is Respite when someone gives you the time you need. Get aggressive when it comes to looking for help, it is up to you to find it. It is out there only it is often hidden. My son is 23 & functions at around the 2yr level. He goes to an adult day center that was meant for elderly alzhiemers needs but he enjoys it & the most important part is that they like him being there. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have violent episodes where i have to go & get him early. He is 6’2″ & weighs 284 lbs. It can be challanging to keep everyone safe. You can’t do it all by yourself & no one expects you to.

  15. September 3, 2011 at 11:02 am | #19

    my last post was for Bailey.. :)

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