Oxytocin: Sexual Function and Autism
Association of Women for the Advancement of Research and EducationToday is


ProjectAWARE logo


Read about the menopause experience. All sorts of options to manage menopause. Health issues such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Books, health links, studies and more!
You are here:  Home > Resources > Article Archives >Oxytocin: Sexual Function and Autism
Bookmark and Share

Oxytocin: Its Role in Sexual Function and Autism

by Tiffany Spudich, PharmD, Consultant Pharmacist
August 26, 2010


Oxytocin is a peptide hormone that regulates a wide variety of behaviors including social memory, recognition, bonding, love, trust, maternal behavior, childbirth, and lactation. It is made by neurons in the hypothalamus and also peripherally in the uterus, placenta, corpus luteum, testis, and heart. Oxytocin has only one type of receptor, often called OTR or OXTR, and it works in the body both peripherally and centrally. Both oxytocin and OXTR expression is usually higher in females.

Peripherally, oxytocin is released from the posterior pituitary, from where it enters the circulation by release into the portal capillaries. Peripheral actions of oxytocin are commonly associated with smooth muscle contraction, particularly within the female and male reproductive tracts. Within the central nervous system, oxytocin is expressed by the neurons of the hypothalamus that project into higher brain centers. The OXTR is highly distributed throughout the brain.

Oxytocin and Sexual Function

Plasma oxytocin levels significantly correlate with higher levels of during sexual arousal, and orgasm significantly raises levels in men and women. A study in 10 healthy male subjects, intranasal inhalation of 24 units oxytocin significantly increased plasma oxytocin and epinephrine levels (Burri et al, 2008). Oxytocin levels stayed elevated after administration throughout the whole experiment, which was greater than 60 minutes. Data indicates that intranasal oxytocin administered during coitus may treat anorgasmia in men in cases where medical conditions, drug abuse, and psychological issues have been ruled out. (Ishak et al, 2008).

Studies have also shown steroid hormones to have an essential role in sexual responsiveness to oxytocin. In males, the OXTR can be found in the corpus cavernosum and epididymis of the penis, and binding to the OXTR in this region may affect contractility. Data has demonstrated that that oxytocin does not act alone to bring about penile erections. Oxytocin was unable to induce erections without testosterone and estrogen, and data has demonstrated that OXTR binding was increased in the brain of male rats by estrogen and testosterone administration and decreased by castration. Castration eliminated erections even with administration of oxytocin and apomorphine, but could later be re-established with co-administration of testosterone (Melis et al, 1994). In addition, deprivation of endogenous estrogens by using the aromatase inhibitor letrozole was shown to induce oxytocin hypo-responsiveness - suggesting a new function of estrogen in males (Vignozzi et al,2004). Studies have also shown that female rats given oxytocin were more sexually receptive when also given estrogen, or estrogen and progesterone (Caldwell et al, 1989a; Gorzalka and Lester, 1987; Caldwell et al, 1986b; Arletti et al, 1985).


The potential role of oxytocin in autism spectrum disorder addresses social deficits of the disorder, for which there is currently limited pharmacological treatment. Data suggests oxytocin therapy could potentially help individuals with autism to recognize emotions or to eliminate the repetitive, obsessive behaviors linked to the disorder. Some data has shown that children with autism manifest lower plasma oxytocin levels than those of normal children and those children with autism show alterations in the endocrine oxytocin system - suggesting that deficits in oxytocin peptide processing may be important in the development of autism. Several studies also indicate that mutations in the OXTR genes are linked with autism spectrum disorders. However, data from a recent study did not support the role of common genetic variation in OXTR in the etiology of autism spectrum disorders (Tansey et al, 2010).

A study in adults with autism and Asperger's disorder who received intravenous infusion oxytocin, all 15 participants in the study experienced a significant reduction in both the number and severity of repetitive behaviors such as repeating, self-injury, and touching, and increased ability to comprehend and remember the affective component of spoken words such as whether they were happy, indifferent, angry, or sad (Hollander et al., 2003). A recent double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study in 15 male youth aged 12 to 19 who were diagnosed with Autistic or Asperger's Disorder showed improvement in emotion recognition after receiving a dose of 18 or 24 units of oxytocin nasal spray (Guastella et al,2010).


There are still many questions to be answered regarding the potential role of oxytocin in anorgasmia and autism spectrum disorder. Since oxytocin is a peptide, it has poor blood brain barrier penetration; once it is released peripherally it cannot re-enter the brain. Intranasal administration has been shown to pass through the barrier. However, intravenous administration may or may not pass through this barrier and also this route of administration is not realistic for most patients to use on a recurrent basis. In addition, oxytocin has a short elimination half-life; Pitocin®, a synthetic commercial brand of oxytocin often used in childbirth, has a half-life of 1-5 minutes. Currently there is some investigation into the development of non-peptide molecules that act as selective agonists of the OXTR. The best way to both administer and dose oxytocin is still under question, and more large, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies are still needed that address multiple populations including children with autism as well as women with anorgasmia.

This article is not a substitute for medical advice. Always contact your own physician or other professional healthcare provider if you have a question concerning your or your family's health.

  • WS (June 2009). "Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life". Progress in Neurobiology 88 (2): 127-51. doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2009.04.001
  • Arletti R, Bazzani C, Castelli M, Bertolini A. Oxytocin improves male copulatory performance in rats. Horm Behav 1985;19:14-20.
  • Blaicher W, Gruber D, Bieglmayer C, Blaicher AM, Knogler W, Huber JC. The role of oxytocin in relation to female sexual arousal. Gynecol Obstet Invest 1999;47:125-126.
  • Burri A, Henrichs M, Schedlowski M, Kruger TH,. The acute effects of intranasal oxytocin administration on endocrine and sexual function in males. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2008;33:591-600.
  • Caldwell HK, Lee HJ, Macbeth AH, Young WS 3rd. Vasopressin: behavioral roles of an “original” neuropeptide. Prog Neurobiol 2008;84:1-24.
  • Caldwell JD, Brooks PJ, Jirikowski GF, Barakat AS, Lund PK, Pedersen CA. Estrogen alters oxytocin messenger-Rna levels in the preoptic area. J Neuroendocrinol 1989a;1:273-278.
  • Caldwell JD, Prange AJ Jr, Pedersen CA. Oxytocin facilitates the sexual receptivity of estrogen-treated female rats. Neuropeptides 1986b;7:175-189.
  • Caldwell JD, Walker CH, Pedersen CA, Barakat AS, Mason GA. Estrogen increases affinity of oxytocin receptors in the medial preoptic area-anterior hypothalamus. Peptides 1994b;15:1079-1084.
  • Carmichael MS, Humbert R, Dixen J, Palmisano G, Greenleaf W, Davidson JM. Plasma oxytocin increases in the human sexual response. J Clin Endorinol Metab 1987;64:27-31.
  • Carter CS. Sex differences in oxytocin and vasopressin: implications for autism spectrum disorders? Behav Brain Res 2007;176:170-186.
  • Filippi S, Vignozzi L, Vannelli GB, Ledda F, Forti G, Maggi M. Role of oxytocin in the ejaculatory process. J Endocrinol Invest 2003;26:82-86.
  • Gimpl G, Fahrenholz F. The oxytocin receptor system: structure, function, and regulation. Physiol Rev. 2001 Apr;81(2): 629-83.
  • Gorzalka BB, Lester GL. Oxytocin-induced facilitation of lordosis behaviour in rats is progesterone-dependent. Neuropeptides 1987;10:55-65.
  • Green LA, Fein D, Modahl C, Feinstein C, Waterhouse L, Morris M (2001). Oxytocin and autistic disorder: alteration in peptide forms. Biol Psychiatry 50:609-613.
  • Guastella AJ, Einfeld SL, Gray KM, Rinehart NJ, Tonge BJ, Lambert TJ, Hickie IB. Intranasal oxytocin improves emotion recognition for youth with autism spectrum disorders. Boil Psychiatry. 2010 Apr 1;67(7):692-4.
  • Hollander E, Bartz J, Chaplin W, Phillips A, Sumner J, Soorya L, Anagnostou E, Wasserman S. Oxytocin increases retention of social cognition in autism. Biol Psychiatry 2007;61:498-503.
  • Hollander E, Novotny S, Hanratty M, Yaffe R, DeCaria CM, Aronowitz BR, Mosovich S. Oxytocin infusion reduces repetitive behaviours in adults with autistic and asperger's disorders. Neuropsychopahrmacology. 2003;28:193-198.
  • Ishak WW, Berman DS, Peters A. Male anorgasmia treated with oxytocin. J Sex Med 2008;5:1022-1024.
  • Jacob S, Brune CW, Carter CS, Leventhal BL, Lord C, Cook EH Jr. Association of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) in Caucasian children and adolescents with autism. Neurosci Lett 2007;417:6-9.
  • Lee H, Macbeth AH, Pagani J, Young WS 3rd. Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life. Prog Neurobiol. 2009 June;88(2):127-151.
  • Lerer E, Levi S, Salomon S, Darvasi A, Yirmiya N, Ebstein RP. Association between the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and autism: relationship to Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales and cognition.. Mol Psychiatry. 2008 Oct;13(10):980-8.
  • Lexi-Comp Online. http://online.lexi.com . 2010
  • Melis MR, Mauri A, Arigiolas A. Apomorphine-and-oxytocin-induced penile erection and yawning in intact and castrated male rats: effect of sexual steroids. Neuroendocrinology 1994;59:349-354.
  • Modahl C, Green L, Fein D, Morris M, Waterhouse L, Feinstein C, Levin H. Plasma oxytocin levels in autistic children. Biol Psychiatry 1998;44:1349-1352.
  • Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Intranasal Oxytocin in the Treatment of Autism. http://clinicaltrials.gov. June 2007.
  • Opar, A. Search for potential autism treatments turns to trust hormone. Nature Medicine. 2008 Apr;14(4):353.
  • Richter ON, Kubler K, Schmolling J, Kupka M, Reinsberg J, Ulrich U, van der Ven H, Wardelmann E, van der Ven K. Oxytocin receptor gene expression of estrogen-stimulated human myometrium in extracorporeally perfused non-pregnant uteri. Mol Hum Reprod 2004;10:339-346.
  • Ring RH, Schechter LE, Leonard SK, Swyer JM, Platt BJ, Graf R, Grauer S, Puilcicchio C, Resnick L, et al. Receptor and behavioral pharmacology of WAY-267464, a non-peptide oxytocin receptor agonist. Neuropharmacology. 2010 Jan;58(1):69-77.
  • Rossoni E, Feng J, Tirozzi B, Brown D, Leng G, Moos F. Emergent synchronous bursting of oxytocin neuronal network. PLoS Comput Biol 2008;4:e1000123.
  • Salonia A, Nappi RE, Pontillo M, Daverio R, Smeraldi A, Briganti A, Fabbri F, Zanni G, Rigatti P, Montorsi F. Menstrual cycle-related changes in plasma oxytocin are relevant to normal sexual function in healthy women. Horm Behav 2005;47:164-169.
    Soloff MS. Oxytocin receptors and mammary myoepithelial cells. J Dairy Sci 1982;65:326-337.
  • Tansey KE, Brookes KJ, Hill MJ, Cochrane LE, Gill M, Skuse D, Correia C, Vicente A, Kent L, Gallagher L, Anney RJ. Oxytocin receptor (OXTR) does not play a major role in the aetiology of autism: genetic and molecular studies. Neurosci Lett. 2010 May 3;474(3):163-7.
  • Tom N, Assinder SJ. Oxytocin in health and disease. Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2010 Feb;42(2)202-5.
  • Vignozzi L, Filippi S, Luconi M, Morelli A, Mancina R, Marini M, Vannelli GB, Granchi S, Orlando C, Gelmini S, Ledda F, Forti G, Maggi M. Oxytocin receptor is expressed in the penis and mediates an estrogen-dependent smooth muscle contractility. Endocrinology 2004;145:1823-1834.
  • Witt DM. Oxytocin and rodent sociosexual responses: from behavior to gene expression. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 1995;19:315-324.
  • Wu S, Jia M, Ruan Y, Liu J, Guo Y, Shuang M, Gong X, Zhang Y, Yang X, Zhang D. Positive association of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) with autism in the Chinese Han population. Biol Psychiatry 2005;58:74-77.
  • Zingg HH, Laporte SA. The oxytocin receptor. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism. TEM 2003;14:222-227.

For questions and further information, contact Bellevue Pharmacy Solutions.


Top of page arrow






Adrenal Fatigue
Cortisol and Weight
DHEA or Testosterone for Women
Estrogen and Memory Loss
HRT for Breast Cancer Survivors and Women at High Risk for Cancer
Human Identical Hormones
Premarin, Facts and Opinions
Progesterone FAQ
Synthetic Progestins and Natural Progesterone, Differences
Natural Progesterone, What Role in Women's Healthcare
Tamoxifen for Prevention of Breast Cancer
Testosterone and Its Benefits to Women
Testosterone's Impact on Postmenopausal Women...
Thyroid Hormone, Symptoms, and...
Typical HRT Products
Where to get Natural Hormones
Herbal Allies, An Introduction
Alternative Remedies for Menopausal Symptoms




This content is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with your questions regarding a medical condition.

Copyright 1997-2010 ProjectAWARE. All rights reserved.

Questions or comments about this site? Contact the Website Editor, <aware.editor@project-aware.org>