The 'love hormone' that builds bonds between mothers and babies could be used to treat autism in young children, a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry suggests.

Studies have shown that people with autism have low levels of oxytocin. But little is known about oxytocin levels in young children. Israeli researchers set out to examine levels of oxytocin in pre-schoolers and whether production of the hormone could be enhanced by parent-child social contact.

Eight families, including mothers, fathers, and their pre-school-aged child participated in two groups. The first group included 40 pre-schoolers diagnosed with autism and their parents. The second group included 40 pre-schoolers with no known neuro-developmental or psychiatric diagnoses, and their parents.

The children were seen three times by researchers – once at their nursery and twice at home. Two identical home visits were conducted – once with the mother and once with the father – within the same month, with each visit lasting about two hours. Each visit included 45 minutes of parent-child contact. This contact between parent and child included the parent picking up the child to cuddle them, and playing games with puppets and toys.

During each home visit four saliva samples were collected from each parent and child, to measure levels of oxytocin. This was done before, during, at the end of, and after the parent-contact period.

Researchers found that the children diagnosed with autism had lower levels of oxytocin compared to those who did not. They also found that levels of oxytocin in pre-schoolers with autism changed during the course of the visit. After 20 minutes of parent-child play, the levels of oxytocin in those with autism increased and remained high during the period of social contact. However, 15 minutes after that contact, the oxytocin in the children with autism fell to its original level.

Researcher Ruth Feldman, of the Department of Psychology and the Gonda Brain Sciences Center, Bar-llan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel, said: “Our study shows that, as with adults with autism, young children with autism have low levels of oxytocin.

But the quick improvement in oxytocin production following parent-child play indicates that these sorts of attachment based therapies could help children with autism and encourage their entry into the social world.”