Friday, October 4

Oxytocin, Autism, Touch, and Standardized Tests

Last year my dad gave me a priesthood blessing in which he promised that some of the things I face would go away. Specifically, after the blessing, he explained that it was about bipolar & autistic spectrum disorder.

At the time, I had never heard of either being cured or spontaneously disappearing - especially autism. And yet, in the year since, life has seemed to push me into places where they are disappearing. Or at least seem to be.

The bipolar is responding to an extremely low carb diet - I no longer cycle into depression when I stay under 10g each day of non-fiber carbs. And after two years of the diet (I'm just a few months in), there's a chance my brain will be changed permanently. I may never have to worry about bipolar again.

The autism has also seemed to be changing. It sometimes seems easier to tell when people are serious or sarcastic, even if habit tells me they're always serious.

This morning, I was reading on the Autism Speaks website about research into oxytocin and autism. A number of studies have found reduced autistic behaviors and dramatically improved social function in volunteers who inhale nasal oxytocin. Right now, there is a year-long study with thousands (I think) of patients testing the efficacy of oxytocin on autistic development and adequate socialization... and it made me wonder.

Oxytocin is a natural hormone that, in most people, comes from social and physical interaction throughout life. Just making eye contact increases oxytocin levels, or touching someone, or being close. It modulates social bonding, increases fidelity in marriage, makes people more trusting and generous, and essentially empowers every social interaction and feeling.

A number of studies have shown a correlation between autism and a lack of certain oxytocin receptors - which could potentially be the main difference between those on and off the spectrum.

Oxytocin also impairs cognition and decision-making skills, creating a type of amnesia for certain types of information, preferentially storing social information at the expense of all else. I've always felt that ASD was simply the brain showing a marked preference for non-social information... and this could support that theory. A lack of everyday oxytocin (or its receptors that modulate physiological functions) could be the reason why kids with ASD have a higher proportional fluid IQ than their neurotypical counterparts. And the reason why they both feel isolated from others (since oxytocin is the connecting hormone) and unable to develop better social skills.

And then there's the world of touch. Many kids with ASD are hypersensitive to touch, and shy away from it at all costs. I know I did. Oxytocin functions using a positive feedback loop - more oxytocin makes it easier to get more oxytocin... and less makes it harder. Without social cues and the resultant chemical reward for appropriate social behavior, touch becomes one of the easiest ways to improve oxytocin release, except that people with ASD don't want touch. The thing that crossed my mind when I realized this was: that means you may have to touch people with ASD more in order to help them function better in social interactions... even if at first they are uncomfortable with any touch at all. So strange.

In the last year, I've shifted my preference for touch from "don't even think about touching me, even in passing, because I will stare you down and burn you to a crisp" (not kidding) to "touch is an important part of every social interaction" (you definitely don't cuddle with everyone... but I don't flinch when someone brushes against me in the hall at church anymore). And I wonder if that shift has been an influence in my ability to understand people. If oxytocin is the underlying reason, and it works using positive feedback loops, then it would make sense that, in the beginning, increasing oxytocin would have only a minor effect... that would grow exponentially with time.

Who knows? Maybe the study being done will show that intranasal oxytocin can flip the switch between preferential processing of cognitive and social data. Then people with minor forms of ASD would be able to have the best of both worlds - dramatically increased productivity and focus while working or solving problems, and, with a spray/sniff some time before a date or meetup with a friend, more adequate social processing and reciprocity. That would be amazing... and a modern miracle. Maybe that's what my dad was talking about.


  1. Wow, that's really interesting about the low carb--bipolar and oxytocin--ASD connections. I also found it interesting that your dad elaborated after the blessing on what he said during. I've never experienced that and never would have expected it. Neat!

  2. That kind of diet can only be possible with the drastic elimination of fruits and vegetables: a style of eating that is very closely reduced to heart disease and premature death.Please please avoid saturated fats (found in coconut oil, butter, etc) Unsaturated fats are good. There were drastically reduced rates of heart disease in Finland after the nation-wide reduction of saturated fats I should add however, that according to current medical knowledge, dietary cholesterol is all right and does not affect blood cholesterol b=very much. The problems come from saturated fat (and trans fat, but that's already been eliminated from most foods)

  3. Rivka -

    I am vegan, and have been for years. Major reduction of saturated fats and complete elimination of trans fatty acids is only possible through a vegan diet, as meat and milk contains a significant amount of naturally occurring, yet still held by the nutritional community at large as dangerous, trans fat. I'm not going to be eating butter anytime soon.

    Dietary cholesterol is also only found in animal byproducts; as I'm vegan, I'm not going to be eating cholesterol anytime soon either.

    Thanks for your concern. The diet is going incredibly well - my cholesterol is low, my blood pressure is awesome, my blood counts and vitamin levels are excellent, and my energy is mostly consistent. If I learn that I can drink acetone to get the same effects (as some current research may suggest), then I'll ditch the diet for my previous love affair with vegetables. Until then, I'm not experiencing bipolar mood swings... and if doing this for two years can cure me for life, I think that will have a much bigger effect on my survivability than having to get nutrients from limited carbs.


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