National / Science & Health

Japanese researchers push to commercialize 'happiness hormone' nasal spray drug for autism


A group of researchers in Japan is hoping to make available for use as a nasal spray a drug to improve symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

The group, led by Professor Hidenori Yamasue of Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, is conducting a clinical trial of the treatment that includes oxytocin, also known as the “happiness hormone.”

The oxytocin spray is drawing attention from ASD patients and their families throughout Japan because an effective treatment has yet to be established for ASD, which is marked by issues relating to interpersonal communication, empathy and cooperation with others.

ASD, which includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome, affects one in every 100 people, according to Yamasue. Symptoms generally appear between the ages of 2 and 3, but many people are not diagnosed until they reach adulthood.

ASD affects more men than women. Based on this, Yamasue came up with a theory that oxytocin — a hormone that plays a role in womb contractions and the release of breast milk — may be linked to patients’ readiness to cooperate.

During the trial, adult male subjects showed an improvement in their communicative ability after inhaling oxytocin through the nose. Part of the brain that controls emotional understanding grew more active after the inhalation.

The number of people diagnosed with ASD is on the rise in Japan as public awareness of the disorder has increased.

While the disorder has drawn wider public attention, an effective treatment remains elusive.

“ASD patients, their families and all of society suffer heavy burdens,” Yamasue said, stressing his wish to develop a remedy as soon as possible.

Last month, Yamasue won an award from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, or AMED, for young researchers who have made contributions to the medical field.

The oxytocin spray, which is in a Phase 2 trial, is being tested at seven universities across the country.

Yamasue said the group aims to put the treatment into practical use by 2023 after confirming its safety and effects.