But so far there are only a few small studies, and none with young children. Sue Carter, a biologist at the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that's not much to go on.
"If I had an autistic child, I would not try this because I wouldn't want my child to be one who we later discovered had been harmed in some way," she says.
Oxytocin affects the part of the nervous system that controls functions like heart rate, breathing and digestion. Prescription versions carry warnings about side effects, including bleeding and seizures.
Carter says that's just from short-term treatment with the hormone.
"The big problem here is that there isn't any research to speak of at all on the long-term effects of oxytocin, the effects of repeated treatments, at least in children," she says.
Carter says it's possible that long-term treatment could cause a child's body to produce less oxytocin of its own or become less responsive to the hormone.
NPR reports on chelation, quoting Barbara Moore of the lead clinic at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore:
Recently, a new challenge has cropped up for Moore and her staff — chelation kits for sale on the Internet. These products — which run the gamut from clay baths to pills to test kits — claim to let consumers cure autism or Alzheimer's or hardening of the arteries without professional medical help.
One website claimed its chelation product corrects neurological damage and gets rid of mercury. Some autism advocates say mercury causes autism, but there is no scientific proof of that. Experts say chelation is not an effective autism treatment.
Moore says the products aren't safe.
"I don't recommend the oral chelation that you can get over the Internet or over the counter. We don't know what the safe level is of administering to a child or to anybody else, really," she says.
These products haven't been properly tested for any diseases other than heavy metal poisoning. In fact, the National Institutes of Health halted a study of chelation as an autism treatment, citing too much patient risk. But the NIH is studying chelation for hardening of the arteries. Results are expected to be announced in 2012.
Recently the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to eight companies that were selling illegal chelation therapies. FDA labeling compliance chief Michael Levy says the agency is cracking down.
"We are very concerned that the marketers of these products are preying on the most vulnerable of consumers," he says.
He's talking about consumers like Sherry Oliver who have very sick kids without many treatment options. The FDA is concerned that people will put their health at risk by using the therapies and delay seeking appropriate medical treatment.
Some scientists believe that the drug MDMA (ecstasy), which is known to increase feelings of social connection and empathy, may have psychotherapeutic benefits for those with disorders often associated with a lack of feeling connected to others, such as in schizophrenia, autism, or antisocial personality disorder.
Up until now, scientists have had a hard time objectively measuring the effects of this drug, and there has been very little research in humans. Researchers from the University of Chicago, who conducted research on healthy volunteers, have reported their new findings in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.
“We found that MDMA produced friendliness, playfulness, and loving feelings, even when it was administered to people in a laboratory with little social contact. We also found that MDMA reduced volunteers’ capacity to recognize facial expressions of fear in other people, an effect that may be involved in the increased sociability said to be produced by MDMA,” said author Dr. Gillinder Bedi.
A backgrounder from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that extreme caution is necessary:
Research in animals indicates that MDMA can be harmful to the brain—one study in nonhuman primates showed that exposure to MDMA for only 4 days caused damage to serotonin nerve terminals that was still evident 6 to 7 years later.1 Although similar neurotoxicity has not been shown definitively in humans, the wealth of animal research indicating MDMA’s damaging properties strongly suggests that MDMA is not a safe drug for human consumption.
For some people, MDMA can be addictive.2 A survey of young adult and adolescent MDMA users found that 43 percent of those who reported ecstasy use met the accepted diagnostic criteria for dependence, as evidenced by continued use despite knowledge of physical or psychological harm, withdrawal effects, and tolerance (or diminished response).3 These results are consistent with those from similar studies in other countries that suggest a high rate of MDMA dependence among users.4 MDMA abstinence-associated withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, depressed feelings, and trouble concentrating.2
MDMA can also be dangerous to overall health and, on rare occasions, lethal. MDMA can have many of the same physical effects as other stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamines. These include increases in heart rate and blood pressure—which present risks of particular concern for people with circulatory problems or heart disease—and other symptoms such as muscle tension, involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, faintness, and chills or sweating.