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Defective oxytocin function: a clue to understanding the cause of autism?

Fiorella Gurrieri and Giovanni Neri*

Author Affiliations

Institute of Medical Genetics, Catholic University School of Medicine, Rome, Italy

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BMC Medicine 2009, 7:63  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-7-63

Published: 22 October 2009


The autism spectrum disorders are a group of conditions with neurobehavioral impairment affecting approximately 0.6% of children. The clinical presentation is complex and the etiology is largely unknown, although a major role of genetic factors is widely accepted. A number of genetic studies led to the identification of genes and/or copy number variants whose alterations are associated with autism, but no specific factor has been found so far to be responsible for a substantial proportion of cases. Epigenetic modifications may also play a role, as demonstrated by the occurrence of autism in genetic conditions caused by mutations in imprinted genes or regions.

The article by Gregory et al. published this month in BMC Medicine, reports on genomic and epigenetic alterations of OXTR, the gene encoding the receptor for oxytocin. The involvement of this gene was suggested by its deletion in an autistic patient. The subsequent analysis of a group of unrelated autistic subjects did not show an OXTR deletion, but rather hypermethylation of the gene promoter, with a reduced mRNA expression.

These findings address two major points of the current debate on the etiology and pathogenesis of autism: the role of oxytocin, known to be involved in modeling human behavior, and the possible involvement of epigenetic mechanisms. The nature of this epigenetic dysregulation is unknown but, if proved to be true, might explain the failure to identify sequence alterations in a host of candidate genes. Practical implications of these findings may be forthcoming, however not before extension and validation on a larger scale have confirmed their value.

See the associated research paper by Gregory et al: webcite