Chapter 5. Hormones and the Brain
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By Kevin Pelphrey, In September, the Florida State University football team made a visit to a Tallahassee middle school that would become famous. At lunchtime, student-athlete Travis Rudolph noticed sixth grader Bo Paske eating alone, so he joined Bo for the meal. Bo, who has autism, often sat by himself in the lunchroom. The world took note of the athlete’s gesture after his mother’s Facebook post about it went viral. “This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes,” she wrote. This story touched people because it calls to mind something universal: the sting of social exclusion. We have all known children who often eat, or play, alone. And all of us have felt left out at one time or another. But although this experience may be universal, a new generation of children is experiencing a wave of inclusiveness. Technology of various types, often thought of as an isolating influence, can actually abet people’s good intentions or help those with autism learn to fit in. One new app called Sit With Us, invented by 16-year-old Natalie Hampton, helps vulnerable children who have difficulty finding a welcoming group in the lunchroom. Its motto is inspiring: “The first step to a warmer, more inclusive community can begin with LUNCH.” Sit With Us allows students to designate themselves as ‘ambassadors’ and to signal to anyone seeking company that they’re invited to join the ambassador’s table. © 2017 Scientific American
By LISA SANDERS, M.D. “You don’t look well,” the man at the gas station told the older woman in the car. He’d known her for years, always thinking of her as a lively, robust woman. But that day she looked pale and tired. Her sharp blue eyes seemed dim. She gave a feeble smile. “I don’t feel well at all,” she told him. There’s an urgent-care clinic just up the street, he said. Could she make it there? She was nearly 45 minutes away from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Stopping just up the street seemed a much better option. At the clinic, the doctor took one look at her, put a blood pressure cuff around her arm and told her assistant to call an ambulance. The rest of the day was a blur. The woman remembers being bundled onto a stretcher and one of the E.M.T.s saying her blood pressure was very low. It was an odd thing to hear, because her blood pressure was usually high enough to require three medications. She was taken to the emergency room at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Center in Halifax. She remembers being fussed over — having blood drawn, receiving intravenous fluids, feeling sticky snaps being placed on her chest that connected her to a continuous heart monitor. She had been a nurse for many years when she was younger, yet seeing herself at the center of these familiar activities was strange. A blood test indicated that there may have been damage to her heart. The doctor told her she was having a heart attack, she recalls. You’ve got the wrong patient, she thought to herself. Sure, she had a little high blood pressure, a little asthma, a little back pain. But problems with her heart? Never. The patient used a cane, but she had no difficulty getting up on the exam table — an important test of mobility. © 2017 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 23101 - Posted: 01.14.2017
By Andy Coghlan Can tiny brains grown in a dish reveal the secrets of sociability? Balls of brain tissue generated from stem cells are enabling us to understand the underlying differences between people who struggle to be sociable and those who have difficulty reining themselves in. Alysson Muotri at the University of California, San Diego, and his team created the mini-brains by exposing stem cells taken from the pulp of children’s milk teeth to cocktails of growth factors that help them mature. Eventually, they can develop as many as six layers of cerebral cortex – the outer surface of the brain. This region is much more sophisticated in humans than in other animals, and houses important circuitry governing our most complex thoughts and behaviours, including socialising with others. Each mini-brain is approximately 5 millimetres across. “Though they’re not as well defined as they are in a real brain, they resemble what you find in an embryonic fetus,” says Muotri. To understand how brain development affects sociability, the team used donated cells from children with autism and Rett syndrome, both of which are associated with impaired communication skills. They also used cells from children with Williams syndrome, a condition characterised by a hyper-sociable nature. People with Williams syndrome can be unable to restrain themselves from talking to complete strangers. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Andy Coghlan Is the fabled “cuddle hormone” really a “warmone”? Oxytocin levels surge in troops of chimpanzees preparing for conflict with rival groups to defend or expand their territory. The finding is at odds with the prevailing image of oxytocin as something that helps strengthen bonds between parent and infant, or foster friendships. But given its capacity to strengthen loyalty, oxytocin could also be a warmonger hormone that helps chimps galvanise and cooperate against a common enemy. Catherine Crockford of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues monitored two rival groups of chimpanzees in the Taï National Park in Ivory Coast, each containing five males and five females, for prolonged periods between October 2013 and May 2015. Thanks to trust built up between the team and the chimps, the team could safely track and video the groups – even during conflict, observing at close quarters what was happening. Crucially, the team was also able to pipette up fresh samples from soil when chimps urinated. The samples revealed that oxytocin levels surge in the mammals whenever the chimps on either side prepared for confrontation, or when either group took the risk of venturing near or into rival-held territories. These surges dwarfed the oxytocin levels seen during activities such as grooming, collaborative hunting for monkey prey or food sharing. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Kevin McCarthy There’s a dearth of safety data for melatonin, but there are a number of potential concerns, especially for children. “I think we just don’t know what the potential long-term effects are, particularly when you’re talking about young children,” said Dr. Judith Owens, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Parents really need to understand that there are potential risks.” The pineal gland in the brain ramps up production of the hormone melatonin in the evening, as light fades, to encourage sleep, and it turns down production in the early morning hours. Synthetic forms of the hormone are also sold as a dietary supplement; because melatonin is found in some foods, like barley, olives and walnuts, it is regulated as a nutritional supplement rather than a drug, as most other hormones are. In adults, studies have found melatonin to be effective for jet lag and some sleep disorders. It is also hugely popular as a sleep aid for children and can be useful for sleep disorders among those with attention-deficit disorders or autism, Dr. Owens said. “I rarely see a family come in with a child with insomnia who hasn’t tried melatonin,” she said. “I would say at least 75 percent of the time when they come in to see us” at the sleep clinic, “they’re either on melatonin or they’ve tried it in the past.” While short-term use of the hormone is generally considered safe, it can have side effects, including headaches, dizziness and daytime grogginess, which could pose a risk for drivers. Melatonin can also interfere with blood pressure, diabetes and blood thinning medications. © 2017 The New York Times Company
National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have discovered molecular mechanisms that may underlie a woman’s susceptibility to disabling irritability, sadness, and anxiety in the days leading up to her menstrual period. Such premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) affects 2 to 5 percent of women of reproductive age, whereas less severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is much more common. “We found dysregulated expression in a suspect gene complex which adds to evidence that PMDD is a disorder of cellular response to estrogen and progesterone,” explained Peter Schmidt, M.D. of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, Behavioral Endocrinology Branch. “Learning more about the role of this gene complex holds hope for improved treatment of such prevalent reproductive endocrine-related mood disorders.” Schmidt, David Goldman, M.D., of the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and colleagues, report on their findings January 3, 2017 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. “This is a big moment for women’s health, because it establishes that women with PMDD have an intrinsic difference in their molecular apparatus for response to sex hormones – not just emotional behaviors they should be able to voluntarily control,” said Goldman. By the late 1990s, the NIMH team had demonstrated (link is external) that women who regularly experience mood disorder symptoms just prior to their periods were abnormally sensitive to normal changes in sex hormones — even though their hormone levels were normal. But the cause remained a mystery.
By Laurence O’Dwyer Daniel Tammet correctly recited the first 22,514 digits of Pi over the course of five hours and nine minutes. Less well-known, but similarly impressive, is the ability of a Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)—a bird commonly found along the western flanks of North America—to remember where it stores thousands of separate caches of food. Tammet, who has autism spectrum disorder, is a savant. Some researchers have proposed that Clark’s nutcrackers might also represent a type of autistic savant. However, the unique abilities of a person with an autism spectrum disorder and savant syndrome usually comes at the price of social deficits. Experts in animal cognition who have examined similar abilities in birds and other creatures maintain that nonhuman animals that exhibit savant-like behavior do not display any equivalent dysfunction. The prodigious memory of the Clark’s nutcracker seems to be accompanied by an enlarged hippocampus compared with related species of birds that have not developed caching abilities, but in all other respects the bird seems to function normally. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is crucial for memory formation. In other words, its hyper-performance in one domain does not appear to come at a cost in another. (Admittedly, it is difficult to determine whether Clark’s nutcrackers are socially competent birds.) The “gift at a price” idea stems in part from the left hemisphere dysfunction and right hemisphere compensation that is often associated with savant syndrome. © 1986-2016 The Scientist
Laura Sanders Pregnancy changes nearly everything about an expectant mother’s life. That includes her brain. Pregnancy selectively shrinks gray matter to make a mom’s brain more responsive to her baby, and those changes last for years, scientists report online December 19 in Nature Neuroscience. “This study, coupled with others, suggests that a women’s reproductive history can have long-lasting, possibly permanent changes to her brain health,” says neuroscientist Liisa Galea of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not involved in the study. Researchers performed detailed anatomy scans of the brains of 25 women who wanted to get pregnant with their first child. More scans were performed about two months after the women gave birth. Pregnancy left signatures so strong that researchers could predict whether women had been pregnant based on the changes in their brains. The women who had carried a child and given birth had less gray matter in certain regions of their brains compared with 20 women who had not been pregnant, 19 first-time fathers and 17 childless men. These changes were still evident two years after pregnancy. A shrinking brain sounds bad, but “reductions in gray matter are not necessarily a bad thing,” says study coauthor Elseline Hoekzema, a neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. A similar reduction happens during adolescence, a refinement that is “essential for a normal cognitive and emotional development,” says Hoekzema, who, along with colleagues, did most of the work at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Following those important teenage years, pregnancy could be thought of almost as a second stage of brain maturing, she says. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
By Sarah DeWeerdt, Toddlers with autism are oblivious to the social information in the eyes, but don’t actively avoid meeting another person’s gaze, according to a new study. The findings support one side of a long-standing debate: Do children with autism tend not to look others in the eye because they are uninterested or because they find eye contact unpleasant? “This question about why do we see reduced eye contact in autism has been around for a long time,” says study leader Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s important for how we understand autism, and it’s important for how we treat autism.” If children with autism dislike making eye contact, treatments could incorporate ways to alleviate the discomfort. But if eye contact is merely unimportant to the children, parents and therapists could help them understand why it is important in typical social interactions. The work also has implications for whether scientists who study eye contact should focus on social brain regions rather than those involved in fear and anxiety. Lack of eye contact is among the earliest signs of autism, and its assessment is part of autism screening and diagnostic tools. Yet researchers have long debated the underlying mechanism. The lack-of-interest hypothesis is consistent with the social motivation theory, which holds that a broad disinterest in social information underlies autism features. On the other hand, anecdotal reports from people with autism suggest that they find eye contact unpleasant. Studies that track eye movements as people view faces have provided support for both hypotheses. © 2016 Scientific American
Link ID: 22994 - Posted: 12.17.2016
The important role vitamin D plays in early life is back in the spotlight after Australian researchers noticed a link between a deficiency during pregnancy and autism. The study found pregnant women with low vitamin D levels at 20 weeks’ gestation were more likely to have a child with autistic traits by the age of six. The finding has led to calls for the widespread use of vitamin D supplements during pregnancy, just as taking folate has reduced the incidence of spina bifida in the community. “This study provides further evidence that low vitamin D is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Professor John McGrath from the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute, who led the research alongside Dr Henning Tiemeier from the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands. McGrath said supplements might reduce the incidence of autism, a lifelong developmental condition that affects, among other things, how an individual relates to their environment and other people. “We would not recommend more sun exposure, because of the increased risk of skin cancer in countries like Australia,” he said. “Instead, it’s feasible that a safe, inexpensive, and publicly accessible vitamin D supplement in at-risk groups may reduce the prevalence of this risk factor.” Vitamin D usually comes from exposure to the sun, but it can also be found in some foods and supplements. While it’s widely known vitamin D is vital for maintaining healthy bones, there’s also a solid body of evidence linking it to brain growth. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 22988 - Posted: 12.14.2016
Nancy Shute Getting the flu while pregnant doesn't appear to increase the child's risk of being diagnosed with autism later on, a study finds, and neither does getting a flu shot while pregnant. The study, published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, tries to tease apart subtle questions of risk and risk avoidance. Some smaller, earlier studies have found an association between serious viral infections in pregnancy or maternal fever in pregnancy and increased autism risk. This much larger study finds no such ties, though the authors note that it shouldn't be the last word on the topic. This study examined the health records of 196,929 children who were born at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Northern California between 2000 and 2010. They found that 3,101 children, or 1.6 percent, had been diagnosed with autism through June 2015. The researchers then looked at the mothers' health records to see if they had been diagnosed with flu while pregnant and whether they'd gotten a flu shot. Less than 1 percent of women had the flu; about 23 percent got a flu shot while pregnant, a number that rose from 6 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2010. They found no correlation overall between having the flu while pregnant and increased autism risk in children. © 2016 npr
By JAN HOFFMAN BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Crosby J. Gardner has never had a girlfriend. Now 20 and living for the first time in a dorm here at Western Kentucky University, he has designed a fast-track experiment to find her. He ticks off the math. Two meals a day at the student dining hall, three courses per meal. Girls make up 57 percent of the 20,068 students. And so, he sums up, gray-blue eyes triumphant, if he sits at a table with at least four new girls for every course, he should be able to meet all 11,439 by graduation. “I’m Crosby Gardner!” he announces each time he descends upon a fresh group, trying out the social-skills script he had practiced in the university’s autism support program. “What is your name and what is your major?” The first generation of college students with an autism diagnosis is fanning out to campuses across the country. These growing numbers reflect the sharp rise in diagnosis rates since the 1990s, as well as the success of early-learning interventions and efforts to include these students in mainstream activities. But while these young adults have opportunities that could not have been imagined had they been born even a decade earlier, their success in college is still a long shot. Increasingly, schools are realizing that most of these students will not graduate without comprehensive support like the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky. Similar programs have been taking root at nearly 40 colleges around the country, including large public institutions like Eastern Michigan University, California State University, Long Beach, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers. For decades, universities have provided academic safety nets to students with physical disabilities and learning challenges like dyslexia. But students on the autism spectrum need a web of support that is far more nuanced and complex. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22894 - Posted: 11.21.2016
Laurence O'Dwyer Until as late as 2013 a joint (or comorbid) diagnosis of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was not permitted by the most influential psychiatric handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is an essential tool in psychiatry as it allows clinicians and researchers to use a standard framework for classifying mental disorders. Health insurance companies and drug regulation agencies also use the DSM, so its definition of what does or doesn’t constitute a particular disorder can have far-reaching consequences. One of the reasons for the prohibition of a comorbid diagnosis of autism and ADHD was that the severity of autism placed it above ADHD in the diagnostic hierarchy, so the inattention that is normally present in autism did not seem to merit an additional diagnosis. Nevertheless, that was an odd state of affairs, as any clinician working in the field would be able to quote studies that point to anything from 30% to 80% of patients with autism also having ADHD. More problematic still is the fact that patients with both sets of symptoms may respond poorly to standard ADHD treatments or have increased side effects. The fifth edition of the DSM opened the way for a more detailed look at this overlap, and just a year after the new guidelines were adopted, a consortium (which I am a part of) at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (Netherlands) called NeuroIMAGE published a paper which showed that autistic traits in ADHD participants could be predicted by complex interactions between grey and white matter volumes in the brain. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
By Michael-Paul Schallmo, Scott Murray, Most people do not associate autism with visual problems. It’s not obvious how atypical vision might be related to core features of autism such as social and language difficulties and repetitive behaviors. Yet examining how autism affects vision holds tremendous promise for understanding this condition at a neural level. Over the past 50 years, we have learned more about the visual parts of the brain than any other areas, and we have a solid understanding of how neural activity leads to visual perception in a typical brain. Differences in neuronal processing in autism are likely to be widespread, and may be similar across brain regions. So pinpointing these differences in visual areas might reveal important details about processing in brain regions related to social functioning and language, which are not as well understood. Studying vision in autism may also help connect studies of people to those of animal models. Working with animals allows neuroscientists to study neural processing at many different levels—from specific genes and single neurons to small neural networks and brain regions that control functions such as movement or hearing. But animals do not display the complexity and diversity in language and social functioning that people do. By contrast, visual brain processes are similar between people and animals. We can use our rich knowledge of how neurons in animals process visual information to bridge the gap between animals and people. We can also use it to test hypotheses about how autism alters neural functioning in the brain. © 2016 Scientific American
Heidi Ledford Teaching parents of children with autism how to interact more effectively with their offspring brings the children benefits that linger for years, according to the largest and longest-running study of autism interventions. The training targeted parents with 2–4-year-old children with autism. Six years after the adults completed the year-long course, their children showed better social communication and reduced repetitive behaviours, and fewer were considered to have “severe” autism as compared to a control group, according to results published on 25 October in The Lancet1. “This is not a cure,” says child psychiatrist Jonathan Green of the University of Manchester, and an investigator on the study. “But it does have a sustained and substantial reduction in severity and that’s important in families.” John Constantino, a child psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, says that the results are “monumentally important”, because there has been little evidence showing that interventions for autism at an early stage are effective — even though researchers already broadly endorse the idea. "It is a rare long-term randomized controlled trial in a field in which there exists almost no data of this kind," he says. But he adds that the magnitude of the improvement was a disappointment, and that there were signs that the effects of treatment were diminishing over time. And although the therapy benefited communication skills and decreased repetitive behaviours, it did not lessen childrens' anxiety — another key symptom of autism. “Perhaps most of all, this underscores how desperately important it is that we develop higher-impact interventions,” he says. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited,
Mia Persson Dogs may look to humans for help in solving impossible tasks thanks to some genes previously linked to social disorders in people. Beagles with particular variants in a gene associated with autism were more likely to sidle up to and make physical contact with a human stranger, researchers report September 29 in Scientific Reports. That gene, SEZ6L, is one of five genes in a particular stretch of beagle DNA associated with sociability in the dogs, animal behaviorist Per Jensen and colleagues at Linköping University in Sweden say. Versions of four of those five genes have been linked to human social disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and aggression. “What we figure has been going on here is that there are genetic variants that tend to make dogs more sociable and these variants have been selected during domestication,” Jensen says. But other researchers say the results are preliminary and need to be confirmed by looking at other dog breeds. Previous genetic studies of dog domestication have not implicated these genes. But, says evolutionary geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University, genes that influence sociability are “not an unlikely target for domestication — as humans, we would be most interested in a protodog that was interested in spending time with humans.” |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
By Mallory Locklear Men and women show different patterns of drug abuse, with women becoming addicted to some substances much more quickly. Now a study in rats has found that sex hormones can reduce opioid abuse. From studies of other drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol, we know that women are less likely to use these substances than men, but become addicted faster when they do. “There are a lot of data to indicate that women transition from that initial use to having a substance-use disorder much more rapidly,” says Mark Smith, a psychologist at Davidson College, North Carolina. Once addicted, women also seem to have stronger drug cravings. Tracking drug use throughout women’s menstrual cycles suggests that both these differences could be shaped by hormones – with more intense cravings and greater euphoria at particular times in the cycle, says Smith. Craving crash Now Smith’s team has investigated the effects of hormones on opioid addiction in rats. Their findings suggest that hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone may help women to kick the habit. The researchers allowed female rats to self-administer heroin, and measured how much they chose to take at different times in their oestrous cycle – a regular sequence of hormone fluctuations similar to those seen in the menstrual cycle in women. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By LISA SANDERS, M.D. On Thursday, we challenged Well readers to take on the complicated case of a 50-year-old woman who felt feverish and couldn’t stop vomiting and who ended up losing a lot of weight. Like the doctors who saw her as she searched for a diagnosis, many of you focused on her recent journey to Kenya as the source of her symptoms. It was a completely reasonable approach, and one that was extensively explored by the doctors who cared for her. But ultimately it was incorrect. This was a really tough case. Indeed, only three of you got it right. The correct diagnosis was: Hyperthyroidism Thyroid hormone controls metabolism. The more of this hormone flowing in the body, the harder the body works. Because this hormone plays such an important role in how we function, the body tightly regulates how much of it is released and when. But just like every other system in the body, that regulatory mechanism can mess up, releasing either too little hormone (hypothyroidism) or, as in this case, too much. The usual symptoms of hyperthyroidism are pretty apparent: The heart races; patients are sweaty, shaky, itchy and sometimes feverish. The appetite increases, but because the entire body is revved up, there is often weight loss. Bowel movements become more frequent and sleep harder to come by. Frequent and uncontrolled vomiting is less common but has been reported. This patient had all of these symptoms. The most common cause of hyperthyroidism is an autoimmune disorder known as Graves’ disease, named after Dr. Robert Graves, a 19th-century Irish physician who wrote about the phenomenon of rapid and violent palpitations associated with an enlarged thyroid gland. In the 20th century it was discovered that the symptoms result when antibodies, the foot soldiers of the immune system, cause excess stimulation of the thyroid gland, resulting in the uncontrolled production and release of thyroid hormone. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 22624 - Posted: 09.03.2016
By Christie Aschwanden The Olympic stadium was quiet on Wednesday morning, and spectators in the sparsely filled stands seemed to pay little notice to South African runner Caster Semenya as she cruised to an easy win in her first-round heat of the 800 meters. But on Saturday evening, when Semenya will contest the 800-meter final, she’ll have the world’s eyes on her. “There is no more certain gold medal in the Rio Olympics than Semenya,” wrote Ross Tucker, an exercise scientist in South Africa, on his blog, The Science of Sport. “She could trip and fall, anywhere in the first lap, lose 20m, and still win the race.” If she does indeed dominate, some sports fans will be cheering Semenya, while others will be less inclined to celebrate, believing that she has an unfair advantage over her rivals. Semenya made headlines in 2009 amid rumors that track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, had required her to undergo tests to confirm that she was female. Media accounts have reported that she has hyperandrogenism, a condition that causes higher-than-average testosterone levels — an allegation that neither Semenya nor the IAAF has publicly confirmed. Semenya’s case is the latest saga in sport’s checkered history of sex testing, a task that is purportedly aimed at creating an even playing field but — as I’ve discussed previously — raises serious questions about how athletics organizations treat women. Her muscular build, deep voice and remarkable results had raised suspicions among some of Semenya’s rivals about whether she was really a woman. “Just look at her,” said Mariya Savinova, a Russian runner now tangled in her country’s doping scandal.
By Robert Lavine Just the briefest eye contact can heighten empathetic feelings, giving people a sense of being drawn together. But patients who suffer from autism, even in its most high-functioning forms, often have trouble establishing this sort of a social connection with other people. Researchers are delving into what’s going on behind the eyes when these magical moments occur, and the hormones and neural substrates involved may offer hope of helping people with autism. University of Cambridge neuroscientist Bonnie Auyeung and colleagues gave oxytocin—a compound commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” as it’s been found to play roles in maternal and romantic bonding—to both normal men and those with a high-functioning form of autism also called Asperger’s syndrome. The scientists then tracked the eye movements of the study subjects and found that, compared with controls, those who received oxytocin via nasal spray showed increases in the number of fixations—pauses of about 300 milliseconds—on the eye region of an interviewer’s face and in the fraction of time spent looking at this region during a brief interview (Translational Psychiatry, doi:10.1038/tp.2014.146, 2015). Oxytocin, a neuropeptide hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, has long been known to activate receptors in the uterus and mammary glands, facilitating labor and milk letdown. But research on the neural effects of oxytocin has been accelerated by the availability of a nasal spray formulation of the hormone, which can deliver it more directly to the brain, also rich with oxytocin receptors. Auyeung adds that her study used a unique experimental setup. “Other studies have shown that [oxytocin] increases looking at the eye region when presented with a picture of a face,” Auyeung says. “The new part is that we are using a live interaction.”