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Sep
24

Science Fair: Vasopressin

Science

An occasional column about science news pertaining to autism

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Welcome to Science Fair, a blog post in which I'll be trying to gather some of the latest scientific news about autism. I'll give you links to the stories, plus I'll try to put it in context. We'll try to have news for you every week.

Science

Compiled by Robert B. Waltz

Welcome to Science Fair, a blog post in which I'll be trying to gather some of the latest scientific news about autism. I'll give you links to the stories, plus I'll try to put it in context. We'll try to have news for you every week.

Vasopressin a Hormone of Interest (in at least two senses)

For many years, researchers have been looking at the effects of the hormone oxytocin on autism. Oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" or "trust hormone," helps bind together families and social groups, so it was a natural thought that people with autism, who have problems with relationships, might have defects in their oxytocin mechanisms. No clear results have emerged from those studies. But now a closely related hormone, vasopressin, is now becoming a topic for investigation as well.

Commentary: If you are thinking about going out and trying vasopressin or oxytocin, quite a few cautions are indicated. First, studies on the effects of oxytocin in autism are mixed -- some show positive effects, some do not. My guess is that it depends on who they test it on; some people with autism have problems with the oxytocin/vasporessin mechanism, and some don't, and the discordant results of the trials trials are because have involved samples with larger numbers of one type or another. You don't want to use the hormones if you're the wrong type!

Second, these hormones aren't just brain chemicals -- vasopressin, e.g., regulates water retention and blood vessel constriction; you could really mess with your kidneys or blood pressure by using it. Third, the hormones have some dangers even if used "properly." Oxytocin is a feel-good chemical, and there are signs that it is addictive. It is also infamously a social bonding chemical, and tests seem to show that if you're feeling social rejection, oxytocin can exacerbate the problem rather than make it better.

Finally, these hormones are not stable at room temperature; unless constantly refrigerated, they go bad. This means that most things sold on the internet as oxytocin (and probably vasopressin) are not the real thing, and any that are will be very expensive because they require shipping in refrigerated containers. So, despite these interesting results, self-dosing with oxytocin or vasopressin is probably a very, very bad idea.

 

Autism, Genes, and Mutations

It is well known that autism is primarily a genetic disease; although environment has some influence (probably mostly as a trigger), few cases arise without a genetic component. Recent research has indicated that many cases of autism arise from mutations, e.g. when part of the genetic code gets repeated or when vulnerable genes suffer "hot spot" mutations. (Note: I don't think the science is explained very well in either of the links; I am far from sure the authors understand it. If this really intrigues you, try to find the originals.)

Although genes are largely responsible for autism, most cases are not the direct result of one or two genes; it takes many genes in combination to create the circumstances. The main exception is the genes for Fragile X syndrome. Now there are indications that several other autism-related genetic conditions have effects on the body similar to Fragile X; this might make new therapies possible for these cases of autism:

Commentary: Even though some cases of autism arise from these causes, very many do not, particularly among those with higher social functioning. I frankly don't buy the claim that half of cases arise from mutations. At least not in my circle. The cases I and my friends know almost all involve someone with at least one parent who is a scientist, engineer, or mathematician, and at least one parent who has a condition such as depression; it's the "double dose" that seems to produce autism.

My guess -- only a guess! -- is that only certain subtypes of autism are produced by these sorts of mutations. So these findings very likely do not apply to most readers of this blog, and you probably shouldn't seek special treatment on this basis. My guess is that the high rate the researchers are finding is again due to a biased sample, possibly due to a sample that is too small. (Almost all autism studies seem to be done on samples too small for the results to be statistically reliable).

 

Author bio: AuSM member Robert B. Waltz was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He earned his B.A. in physics and mathematics from Hamline University in 1985. He is the author of three books on folklore, the editor of the online folk music database The Traditional Ballad Index, and recently has been informally studying the biology of autism.