Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nasal spray gives hope on autism

Small sample, no control group

Scientists have found that some symptoms of autism can be alleviated by a nasal spray containing oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone. People with autism who inhaled the spray altered their behaviour temporarily, becoming more sociable and trusting.

Autism and Asperger’s, a related syndrome, impede the ability to communicate or form relationships. Many people with the conditions find it difficult even to meet someone else’s eye.

The research, which has been peer-reviewed, was carried out on 13 patients with high-functioning autism, defined as those of normal or above-normal intelligence. After inhaling the hormone, the patients rapidly became more open. “Under oxytocin, patients with high-functioning autism respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behaviour,” wrote Elissar Andari, of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives, a French government centre for neuroscience research, in a summary of a recent conference presentation.

Such a therapy would be a key breakthrough, if proven. About 500,000 Britons have autism or Asperger’s syndrome, with many suffering exclusion from school and long-term unemployment because of the associated behavioural problems.

In a summary of her presentation to the Mediterranean Conference of Neuroscience, held in Egypt, Andari said the results “suggested a therapeutic potential of oxytocin through its action on a core dimension of autism”. The researchers point out that the effects of the nasal spray are transient and the findings do not mean that a therapy is imminent. Any proposed medication would have to undergo extensive testing, which could take years.

In the study, Andari and her colleagues asked their 13 subjects to inhale oxytocin and then to undergo two tests to see if the hormone had altered their behaviour. One test involved playing a simulated ball game on a computer with three virtual players. After inhaling oxytocin, the 13 patients could work out which of the virtual players was most co-operative and trustworthy much more effectively than subjects who had received a placebo.

The 13 subjects were next asked to look at pictures of faces to test their ability to look into people’s eyes. Andari wrote: “Oxytocin selectively increased patient’s gazing time on the socially informative region of the face such as the eyes.”

Dr Gina Owens, research leader at the National Autistic Society, said: “Further rigorous scientific evaluation is necessary before we can fully assess any potential benefits. As autism affects people in very different ways, any intervention that may help one person may not be effective for another.”


Psychiatrists inventing new "illnesses"

There's not much science in psychiatry -- but plenty of politics. Homosexuality was for a long time listed as a psychiatric illness but that disappeared a few decades ago

PSYCHIATRISTS are to give official recognition to dozens of new mental disorders, including a condition nicknamed “Mary Whitehouse syndrome” — the thrill of being appalled by pornography and other obscenities. Absexuality appears to have been inspired by the zeal of Whitehouse, the campaigner who railed against smut on television. The condition is one of many mood disorders and personality traits that are likely to be added to the next edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatrists’ bible.

The disorders, which also include hypersexuality — the desire for multiple partners, perhaps characterised by the golfer Tiger Woods — reflect changing social patterns. Critics believe, however, that their classification as psychiatric problems may lead them to be exploited for profit by drug companies.

Other new conditions include sluggish cognitive tempo disorder, which some would regard as simple laziness, and relational disorder, in which two people — often a separating couple — struggle to get on. People who whinge constantly may be suffering negativistic personality disorder. Intermittent explosive disorder — otherwise known as adult tantrums — is also defined for the first time.

The conditions are named in a draft version of the manual, a key reference book for psychiatrists for more than 50 years. Their inclusion is under discussion by an international panel. Most are expected to be included in the final edition when it is published in 2013.

Although there is no evidence that Whitehouse got a kick out of salacious viewing, there is no disputing her passion for attacking broadcasters if she felt their standards had slipped. She was so outraged when Kenneth Tynan said “f***” in a live television debate in 1965 that she wrote to the Queen suggesting the theatre critic should have his bottom spanked.

Sex features prominently in the draft of the fifth edition of the manual. According to the document, published last week, the absence of a sex drive can no longer be viewed as a normal state. It is defined as sexual arousal disorder.

Darrel Regier, research director of the American Psychiatric Association and a member of the taskforce working on the manual, said: “One of the reasons for doing this is that we are concerned about establishing better thresholds of diagnosis for people with a genuine disorder.” He denied that revisions were influenced by new developments by drugs companies.

Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at Bangor University, in north Wales, said: “Most of these diagnoses are meaningless and have no basis in science. But the more disorders there are, the more private business psychiatrists get.”


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