Some of the changes in how neonatal mouse brains respond to sensory information after a period of sensory deprivation can be overcome by administering the hormone oxytocin. These results, reported this week in Nature Neuroscience, may have therapeutic consequences for certain neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Oxytocin is a hormone naturally released by the brain to promote sexual arousal, social bonding and emotional behavior. Xiang Yu and colleagues found that the amount of oxytocin released by the hypothalamus in the brain is reduced in neonatal mice when they are deprived of visual or tactile experience right after birth. Depriving young mice of one form of sensory information also affected other sensory cortices in the brain and caused a reduction in excitatory synaptic transmission across the other sensory cortices. Injecting extra oxytocin into the brains of sensory-deprived animals allowed them to overcome this defect and enhanced the brain’s response to other sensory inputs.
Previous studies have reported altered levels of oxytocin in the blood of ASD patients, and oxytocin is currently being considered as a treatment option for a subset of ASD symptoms. However, this study suggests that more work needs to be done to consider these unintended consequences of oxytocin on brain development when considering it as a potential therapy for ASD.