Objectives: We aimed to investigate whether intranasal OXT facilitates Empathic Accuracy, a novel, ecologically valid measure of complex social cognition in healthy males. Additionally, we investigated whether individual differences in ASD traits predict response to OXT.
Methods: To date, 27 healthy men completed participation in this double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over challenge. Participants received intranasal OXT/placebo; 45-minutes later we administered the EA task in which participants watched and listened to short videos of targets discussing positive or negative autobiographical events, and provided continuous ratings of how positive-negative the target was feeling. These ratings were compared to actual target ratings of target affect. EA was measured as the time-series correlation between perceiver and target ratings. Autism traits were assessed with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ).
Results: Mixed-model analyses showed that participants endorsing few autism traits performed well on the EA task whether on placebo or following OXT. By contrast, participants endorsing many autism traits performed more poorly on placebo than their lower AQ counterparts, but, critically, they showed the greatest improvement from OXT—indeed, on OXT, their performance was indistinguishable from their lower AQ counterparts.
Conclusions: Using an ecologically valid EA task, we found that OXT eliminates deficits in the accuracy of interpersonal judgments in adults endorsing autism traits. This research suggests that 1) the EA task is sensitive to the social cognitive deficits implicated in ASD, and 2) that intranasal OXT may have therapeutic potential for treating complex, more naturalistic social cognition. That OXT selectively improved EA for participants endorsing autism traits highlights the promise OXT holds for treating social deficits in ASD.