Autism, a neurodevelopment disorder of unknown cause, has increased alarmingly in recent decades. [1-3] A core feature of autism is impairment of social bonding – the ability to connect emotionally with other people. [4, 5] Humans (and most mammals) are social beings – we have an innate desire to interact with, and form emotional attachments to, other members of our species. It is a basic drive that supports our survival, and its development is hardwired in the brain from birth.
Oxytocin has long been known as the hormone that triggers labor and lactation, hence its use by obstetricians as a drug to stimulate uterine contractions in labor (in its synthetic form, Pitocin). [6, 7] But we now understand that oxytocin has a much broader role, as a chemical messenger in the brain that directs social emotional behavior, specifically bonding – between mother and child, mates, and even friends. [8-11] It is through the release of oxytocin in the brain that bonding makes us feel calmer and happier, which is why we are motivated to form and maintain social bonds.
There is a large body of scientific evidence linking autism and oxytocin. The production and function of oxytocin is abnormal in autism [12, 13], as is the oxytocin gene. [14, 15] The administration of oxytocin can increase some social bonding behavior ([16-18]), and diminish some of the social emotional symptoms of autism ([19-21]).
Neuroscientists have also demonstrated that exposure to exogenous (not naturally occurring) oxytocin early in life disrupts both the develop of the oxytocin system in the brain and bonding behaviors later in life. [22, 23] It should be of some concern, then, that babies experience exposure to exogenous oxytocin early in life when Pitocin is administered to mothers during labor. There is also evidence that exposure to oxytocin in labor interferes with the mother-baby bond, and nursing, just after birth. 
When we understand the connection between oxytocin and bonding, and bonding and autism, and autism and oxytocin, and early environmental exposure to oxytocin and disruption of oxytocin function later in life, and we consider the parallel between the dramatic increases in the incidence of autism and use of Pitocin (synthetic oxytocin) in labor, and the resulting exposure of babies to environmental oxytocin, it is only reasonable to be concerned.
This reasoning has been laid out convincingly before [25-27]. And, in fact, evidence of a direct link between autism and exposure to oxytocin in labor has already been demonstrated in several large, carefully controlled scientific studies. [28, 29].
Furthermore, there is a global movement to reduce the medical management of childbirth, based on evidence linking medical intervention to poorer outcomes, contrary to the assumption that medications and procedures are being used because they have been proven both safe and beneficial. And, unlike many medical problems, the rate of autism is actually higher for children born into families of higher socioeconomic status. [30, 31]
While the cause of autism is unknown, it likely involves an interaction between a genetic vulnerability and an environmental trigger, as is true of most diseases. It is very possible that at least one of the risk factors for having a baby with autism is entirely avoidable, by saying “no” to oxytocin (Pitocin) in labor.
- Blaxill, M.F., What’s going on? The question of time trends in autism. Public Health Rep, 2004. 119(6): p. 536-51.
- Duchan, E. and D.R. Patel, Epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. Pediatr Clin North Am, 2012. 59(1): p. 27-43, ix-x.
- Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders–Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 14 sites, United States, 2008. MMWR Surveill Summ, 2012. 61(3): p. 1-19.
- Levy, F., Theories of autism. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 2007. 41(11): p. 859-68.
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). 4 ed. 2000, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association
- Percival, R.C., On the Effects of Pituitary Extract (Posterior Lobe) in the Third Stage of Labour. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1939.
- Llewellyn-Jones, D., The Place of Oxytocin in Labour. British Medical Journal, 1955. December 3: p. 1364-1366.
- Carter, C.S., Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 1998. 23(8): p. 779-818.
- Lim, M.M. and L.J. Young, Neuropeptidergic regulation of affiliative behavior and social bonding in animals. Horm Behav, 2006. 50(4): p. 506-17.
- Lee, H.J., et al., Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life. Prog Neurobiol, 2009. 88(2): p. 127-51.
- Heinrichs, M. and G. Domes, Neuropeptides and social behaviour: effects of oxytocin and vasopressin in humans. Prog Brain Res, 2008. 170: p. 337-50.
- Green, L., et al., Oxytocin and autistic disorder: alterations in peptide forms. Biol Psychiatry, 2001. 50(8): p. 609-13.
- Jacobson, J.D., et al., Evidence for alterations in stimulatory G proteins and oxytocin levels in children with autism. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014. 40: p. 159-69.
- Muhle, R., S.V. Trentacoste, and I. Rapin, The genetics of autism. Pediatrics, 2004. 113(5): p. e472-86.
- Wu, S., et al., Positive association of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) with autism in the Chinese Han population. Biol Psychiatry, 2005. 58(1): p. 74-7.
- Baumgartner, T., et al., Oxytocin shapes the neural circuitry of trust and trust adaptation in humans. Neuron, 2008. 58(4): p. 639-50.
- Domes, G., et al., Effects of intranasal oxytocin on emotional face processing in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2010. 35(1): p. 83-93.
- Kirsch, P., et al., Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans. J Neurosci, 2005. 25(49): p. 11489-93.
- Guastella, A.J. and C. MacLeod, A critical review of the influence of oxytocin nasal spray on social cognition in humans: evidence and future directions. Horm Behav, 2012. 61(3): p. 410-8.
- Feeser, M., et al., Oxytocin improves mentalizing – Pronounced effects for individuals with attenuated ability to empathize. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2015. 53(0): p. 223-232.
- Gordon, I., et al., Oxytocin enhances brain function in children with autism. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2013. 110(52): p. 20953-8.
- Lim, M.M., I.F. Bielsky, and L.J. Young, Neuropeptides and the social brain: potential rodent models of autism. Int J Dev Neurosci, 2005. 23(2-3): p. 235-43.
- Carter, C.S., Developmental consequences of oxytocin. Physiol Behav, 2003. 79(3): p. 383-97.
- Bell, A.F., R. White-Traut, and K. Rankin, Fetal exposure to synthetic oxytocin and the relationship with prefeeding cues within one hour postbirth. Early Hum Dev, 2013. 89(3): p. 137-43.
- Wahl, R.U., Could oxytocin administration during labor contribute to autism and related behavioral disorders?–A look at the literature. Med Hypotheses, 2004. 63(3): p. 456-60.
- Gialloreti, L.E., et al., Are caesarean sections, induced labor and oxytocin regulation linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders? Med Hypotheses, 2014. 82(6): p. 713-8.
- Hammock, E.A. and L.J. Young, Oxytocin, vasopressin and pair bonding: implications for autism. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 2006. 361(1476): p. 2187-98.
- Gregory, S.G., et al., Association of autism with induced or augmented childbirth in North Carolina Birth Record (1990-1998) and Education Research (1997-2007) databases. JAMA Pediatr, 2013. 167(10): p. 959-66.
- Weisman, O., et al., Oxytocin-augmented labor and risk for autism in males. Behavioural Brain Research, 2015. 284(0): p. 207-212.
- Maenner, M.J., C.L. Arneson, and M.S. Durkin, Socioeconomic disparity in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder in Wisconsin. Wmj, 2009. 108(5): p. 253-5.
- Durkin, M.S., et al., Socioeconomic inequality in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder: evidence from a U.S. cross-sectional study. PLoS One, 2010. 5(7): p. e11551.