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Neuroscience meeting: Emory University starts center to research autism and other disorders

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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SAN DIEGO—"Trust in a Bottle." That’s the marketing slogan for a product called Liquid Trust, a spray that purportedly increases trust.

Don’t buy it. The oxytocin craze has now outpointed the pheromone frenzy for attracting a public enthralled by the easy fix.

The fascination is fueled by 25 to 30 studies in humans that show how the hormone’s properties affect social relationships.

Don’t buy it. No one knows whether, over time, your oxytocin recepters will desensitize and leave you a socially inept wreck.

That doesn’t mean that oxytocin therapy will remain off limits forever. Emory University just announced at this week’s Society for Neuroscience meeting that it is establishing a Center for Translational Social Neuroscience. (Translation of "Translational": take basic research and bring it into clinical practice.)

The objective will be to bring in bigwig scientists like Frans B.M. de Waal from the school’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center to marshal a body of basic research on social bonding and translate it into drugs or behavioral interventions that can help autistic children and those suffering from the kinds of social deficits that can occur with schizophrenia. These studies will also shed light on how the normal social brain works

"The overall goal is to foster collaboration between people trying figure to out how to treat autism patients and people who are working with animals who can come up with clever ways of stimulating the social brain and bring these people together to make translation happen," says Larry Young, the center’s director,  who uses prairie voles (unusual because they are monogamous mammals—see photo) to study social relationships. Young has begun to do research on developing Melanotan, an off-patent drug (originally a tanning agent) that stimulates oxytocin production.

An autistic kid would not be spritzed constantly with Melanotan or some other substance, but would instead use it in a therapy session. The chemical might help in reading emotion in a therapist’s face or performing other excercises to foster an empathetic perspective. Even then, shopping on the Internet for this stuff is a bad idea.

Image Credit: Emory University

 





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