Children with autism often find social interactions awkward, leaving them isolated. Now in a study appearing in ACS’ Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, scientists report that they have discovered a first-of-its-kind compound that promotes social interaction among laboratory mice that display autistic traits. The finding could lead to the development of drugs capable of improving social behaviors in those who have autism.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect about one in every 59 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although symptoms vary, these disorders are often characterized by impaired social interactions, limited communication skills and repetitive behaviors. A few studies have shown that oxytocin, a hormone that acts like a neurotransmitter in the brain, can improve the ability of some ASD patients to interpret emotional cues and interact with others. However, oxytocin can’t be taken orally, is rapidly metabolized when given via injection and doesn’t readily cross the blood-brain barrier. Several research groups have tried to develop drug candidates that overcome these obstacles with little success. So Marcel Hibert and colleagues wanted to determine if other compounds that could mimic oxytocin—and also activate its receptor—might hold the key to helping ASD patients.