Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oxytocin versus autism: A cure for altruism
The widespread message arising from Andari et al. (in press) is that the hormone oxytocin "may be a powerful weapon in fighting autism" or words to that effect.

The heart of this study is a computer game version of catch which appears to involve four human players. When a player is thrown the ball, he must then throw it to another player of his choice. Every time a player receives the ball, he receives a bit of money.

In Andari et al. (in press), small groups of autistic and nonautistic adults ("P") individually play this game with three strangers ("A" "B" "C"). Much is done to persuade the autistic and nonautistic participants that the strangers, who in fact are elaborately programmed, are actual, present, proximate (in adjacent booths), decision-making human beings.

The three strangers start by equally distributing the ball to the other players. Then the elaborate program kicks in: A and C increasingly favour one player (P and B, respectively) while shunning the others. B's behaviour does not change.

In a prototypical display of us-vs-them thinking, the nonautistic Ps responded by ganging up with A to reap the social and monetary gains of a close alliance founded on the exclusion of half the players.

The autistic Ps in contrast displayed no such selfish and discriminatory behaviour. They continued to throw the ball to the other players in equal proportion, ignoring their self-interest in favour of keeping all players equally included.

Further, subjective ratings of the other players revealed that the autistic Ps did not have the kinds of biases that are routinely called hypocrisy. They did not judge C, who shared the most with B, as worse or less trustworthy than A, who shared the most with themselves.

According to Andari et al. (in press), autistics "cannot understand or engage in social situations," as evidenced by autistics' outstandingly altruistic performance in this game. It is this profound social deficit, this altruistic autistic behaviour, that was targeted for treatment.

And indeed, the treatment was successful. Autistics randomly administered a nasal mist containing oxytocin, rather than a saline placebo, significantly improved. They became willing to work with one of the players in an effort to shun and discriminate against the other two, and thereby get more than their fair share of money and attention. They became willing to see the player who shared with them as good and trustworthy, and the player who shared with someone else as bad and untrustworthy. They learned and displayed selfishness and hypocrisy and us-vs-them thinking. Their objectivity, fairness, and altruism were--temporarily--cured.

Then this finding was replicated in a second small group of autistic adults who performed the same task but without monetary rewards.

Success! Cue the avalanche of blogging and media stories. Uta Frith says, "This could be revolutionary."

There is more to Andari et al. (in press), which also reports on two tasks involving face images, about which a few quick notes:
1. There is little ecological evidence that autistics avoid face images or do not make eye contact with face images.

2. Numerous other studies (a few examples here, here, here, here) which feature stronger designs (e.g., use of fixation crosses) have found typical duration and distribution of visual fixations to human face images, and/or typical attention to the eye area, in autistics.

3. For the nonautistic participants, the reported total visual fixation time to the face images--the crucial measure--well exceeds the total exposure time (both tasks), which has me, for one, scratching my head.

4. As yet there is no evidence that the reported oxytocin-related measured changes in visual fixation times to face images would overall be more beneficial than harmful to autistics.

5. In other studies (examples here and here) faster saccades and shorter visual fixation times, presumed by Andari et al. (in press) to be a very bad thing, have been associated with enhanced performance in autistics.
All this too is telling in its way, but it cannot equal the reported spectacular findings with respect to autism and altruism. In this respect Andari et al. (in press), even with its obvious limitations in design, is an enormously valuable paper. It has much to reveal about how autistics are regarded, and about the nature and consequences of the fight against autism.

For more about us-vs-them thinking in autistics and nonautistics, I recommend Tyler Cowen's prescient book, Create Your Own Economy, as well as this related video.

Interpretations of Andari et al. (in press) which in no way resemble the above can be found here, here, and here.


Andari, E., Duhamel, J., Zalla, T., Herbrecht, E., Leboyer, M., & Sirigu, A. (2010). Promoting social behavior with oxytocin in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0910249107

Postscript: This post has been included in the 22nd edition of Scientia Pro Publica.