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Hormone 'messes' with empathy

10th February 2011

New research has added weight to the belief that the male sex hormone testosterone is significant in the development of autism.

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A team of researchers gave women small doses of testosterone as part of a study and found that they were less able to empathise with others as a result.

This included being less able to judge mood or facial expressions and led the UK and Dutch researchers to suggest that exposure to the hormone in the womb may be key to autism.

Autism, which is much higher in boys than girls, affects children in a variety of ways, though the combination of genetics and other environmental factors which produce autism is still unclear.

Experts from universities in Cambridge and Utrecht combined for the latest study to test the theory that the disorder may be the result of an “extreme male brain.”

Researcher Professor Jack van Honk said: “We are excited by this finding because it suggests testosterone levels prenatally prime later testosterone effects on the mind.”

However, some experts say the findings need to be treated with caution.

Professor Uta Frith from University College London said: “The testosterone theory is interesting, but it is still just one of many theories about the origins of autism. I hope these results can be reproduced by other research teams, as the number of women involved are quite small.”

The National Autistic Society said that the study was another important piece of research but while it increased understanding, it did not provide all the answers.

 

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