Oxytocin, Empathy and Autism: Q&A with Sarina Rodrigues

Terra: What is the link between empathy and autism?

Sarina Rodrigues: In general, people high on the autism scale don’t do particularly well on tasks where they are asked to read other people’s emotions. We call this skill “empathic accuracy.” But that doesn’t mean people with autism can’t empathize. In fact, there’s one theory that they might be empathizing too much, and they’re so freaked out they can’t respond. There are a whole lot of underlying mysteries that we haven’t solved yet.

Terra: How do you go about measuring empathic accuracy?

Rodrigues: There’s a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes where the subject is shown a series of photos of people’s eyes and asked to guess what emotion the person is feeling. It has gone through a lot of rigorous validation. Researchers have found that performance on this task inversely relates to where people fall on the autism spectrum.

Terra: Researchers know that oxytocin is linked to emotions such as empathy and compassion. Do you think oxytocin research will help shed light on the causes of autism as well?

Rodrigues: There are some researchers right now who are administering oxytocin to people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome to see how it might affect them. One recent study showed that people with autism had variations in their oxytocin receptors – what’s called DNA methylation. DNA methylation alters gene expression in cells so that cells remember where they have been. You can’t change your genes, but things like stress or loneliness or sleep deprivation can change how those genes express themselves in the body. We know there’s a really strong synergy between oxytocin molecules and their receptors. Something seems to be going on there for people who have trouble with social behavior. There’s one provocative and controversial theory that giving synthetic oxytocin to pregnant women to induce labor might cause problems with the fetus. When you flood the body with oxytocin, the receptors might down-regulate to compensate. It’s quite feasible that this could be a culprit in autism.

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