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January 9, 2009

People with autism or other conditions that impact social skills might benefit from new research on hormones.  Scientists say the hormone oxytocin can boost the ability of humans to recognize faces.

Swiss and U.S. researchers decided to study oxytocin because the hormone, which is known to play a role in childbirth and breastfeeding, has been shown to influence social recognition in mice. In this study, they administered a single dose of either oxytocin or a placebo to study participants using a nasal spray. Then they showed the people pictures of human faces and inanimate objects like houses and landscapes.

The participants were brought back the next day to see what they remembered. People who received oxytocin were more likely to remember faces, but not inanimate objects.

“Together, our data indicate that oxytocin in humans immediately strengthens the capability to correctly recognize and discriminate faces,” study author Peter Klaver, Ph.D., from the University of Zurich, was quoted as saying. He conducted the research in conjunction with investigators at New York University.

Larry Young, Ph.D., an oxytocin expert at Emory University who did not take part in the study, believes this research adds to the evidence that oxytocin plays a critical role in social information processing.

“This has important implications for disorders such as autism, where social information processing is clearly impaired,” he was quoted as saying.

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