The same incredible hormone that helps us fall in love shows promise as a tool for treating children with autism, says a world-renowned US scientist visiting the country.

Dr Larry Young, a Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, is widely regarded for his pioneering research on oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" that enables our brains to process affection and attraction.

Speaking to the Herald at Queenstown Research Week, where he is a star speaker, Dr Young said we were only at the brink of understanding the full potential of this powerful trigger, which activated to help us emotionally bond with our new lovers and infants.

Now, there was early evidence to suggest it could be used to treat social deficits in psychiatric disorders, including autism and schizophrenia.

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Dr Young said oxytocin was part of what made human beings distinct among social relationships in the natural world - the love we experience isn't seen in 97 per cent of other mammals.

He suspected that, at some point in our evolutionary history, our neural system was "tweaked" to ensure mother-infant bonding.

Oxytocin also helped place upon us the rose-tinted glasses that came with falling in love.
In romance and sex, as the neurotransmitter dopamine unlocked feelings of pleasure and reward, oxytocin linked those sensations to the person we were interacting with.

"Over time, as we interact more, and make eye contact, touch, and have intimate moments, all of these things are releasing oxytocin to really make that individual stick in your brain, and you can't take your mind off them" he said.

"We think of love as an addiction - and it is, because it involves the same biochemicals."

Much of the insights his research has given us stems from work with prairie voles - tiny rodents found in Central North America, which also happen to be among the few mammals in which oxytocin releases occur.

Normally, the animals needed to mate for oxytocin to be released, sealing a monogamous bond for ever after.

However, an experiment by Dr Young and his colleagues revealed these same devotions could be formed without mating, and by simply injecting the animals with a drug that caused oxytocin to be released.

Much like the fabled power of Cupid's arrow, the surge of oxytocin resulted in the induced and un-mated male and female staying together long after the drug wore away.

Another fascinating study involved 40 men, all whom stated being passionately in love with their partners.

While in brain scanners, the men inhaled either oxytocin or placebos through nasal sprays, and were then shown pictures of their partners, along with other images of women they knew and strangers whom observers had deemed to be just as attractive.

When those men who took the oxytocin saw the pictures of their partners, the scanner showed the pleasure and desire regions of their brains lighting up.

Such was the impact of oxytocin that Dr Young felt it might be possible to enhance social attention and motivation in young sufferers of autism spectrum disorders, helping them better engage in behavioural therapies.

"There are still plenty more questions to ask and we are just beginning to get glimpses of hope that targeting oxytocin can have therapeutic value," he said.

"But it could take several years, if not decades, to have a big impact on psychiatric disorders - it all has to start with this basic science."

The science of love: Oxytocin's amazing effects

• Perhaps the closest thing neuroscience has to Cupid's arrow, oxytocin is a nonapeptide hormone found in mammals, and normally produced in the brain's hypothalamus.
• When released during romance and social bonding, its fixes the sensations of pleasure and reward that come from dopamine to an individual, helping us fall in love with that person. It is also involved in intimacy and sexual reproduction, and helps with and mother-infant bonding.
• Research has shown it increases trust and reduces fear, while playing physical roles that range from wound healing to contractions before the second and third stages of labour.