The neuropeptide oxytocin has shown promise as a treatment for symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, clinical research progress has been hampered by a poor understanding of oxytocin’s dose–response and sub-optimal intranasal delivery methods. We examined two doses of oxytocin delivered using a novel Breath Powered intranasal delivery device designed to improve direct nose-to-brain activity in a double-blind, crossover, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. In a randomized sequence of single-dose sessions, 17 male adults with ASD received 8 international units (IU) oxytocin, 24IU oxytocin or placebo followed by four social-cognitive tasks. We observed an omnibus main effect of treatment on the primary outcome measure of overt emotion salience as measured by emotional ratings of faces (η2 = 0.18). Compared to placebo, 8IU treatment increased overt emotion salience (P = 0.02, d = 0.63). There was no statistically significant increase after 24IU treatment (P = 0.12, d = 0.4). The effects after 8IU oxytocin were observed despite no significant increase in peripheral blood plasma oxytocin concentrations. We found no significant effects for reading the mind in the eyes task performance or secondary outcome social-cognitive tasks (emotional dot probe and face-morphing). To our knowledge, this is the first trial to assess the dose-dependent effects of a single oxytocin administration in autism, with results indicating that a low dose of oxytocin can significantly modulate overt emotion salience despite minimal systemic exposure.
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