Chapel Hill, N.C. — Doctors diagnosed Collin Horsman with autism when he was about 2 years old. His parents suspected it, but the news still came as a shock.
"Autism is just a scary word," said Erin Horsman, Collin's mother. "It's just terrifying."
Traditional therapies have helped some, but they've always kept an eye out for clinical trials.
The Horsmans participated in a pilot study at UNC's Aspire program, which offered a nasal spray containing oxytocin.
"Oxytocin is a naturally produced peptide in the brain," UNC psychiatrist Dr. Linmarie Sikich said.
Oxytocin also works as a neural transmitter in the brain.
Sikich says the small study gave half the children a placebo spray and the other half the oxytocin.
That's the group the Horsmans are convinced Collin was in.
"He was a lot more engaged, really seemed to interact with people, was even more social than he had been before," said Kevin Horsman, Collin's father.
"One of the ways we think oxytocin works in the brain is actually to make people get more pleasure out of social interactions," Sikich said.
Now the nasal spray will be used in a larger national study to confirm the results founds in the pilot trial. Sikich and the Horsmans believe the improved social behavior has a ripple effect on other hallmarks of autism.
"If they're more social apt and they're comfortable in the environment they're in, they're not going to hum, they're not going to flap," Erin Horsman said. "And they'll be more socially accepted."
Collin has been off the nasal spray since the pilot study ended. The Horsmans say he's regressed some.
"He's been still even more engaged than he was before the study," Kevin Horsman said.
If the oxytocin spray proves to be safe and effective in long term use, the Horsmans said they eager to use it to help Collin.
The new study, with multiple sites around the country including UNC, begins enrolling patients in February. Those wanting to participate can get on a waiting list for the trial.