Endogenous oxytocin levels in children with autism: Associations with cortisol levels and oxytocin receptor gene methylation

Margaux Evenepoel, Matthijs Moerkerke, Nicky Daniels, Viktoria Chubar, Stephan Claes, Jonathan Turner, Bart Vanaudenaerde, Lynn Willems, Johan Verhaeghe, Jellina Prinsen, Jean Steyaert, Bart Boets, Kaat Alaerts*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Alterations in the brain’s oxytocinergic system have been suggested to play an important role in the pathophysiology of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but insights from pediatric populations are sparse. Here, salivary oxytocin was examined in the morning (AM) and afternoon (PM) in school-aged children with (n = 80) and without (n = 40) ASD (boys/girls 4/1), and also characterizations of DNA methylation (DNAm) of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) were obtained. Further, cortisol levels were assessed to examine links between the oxytocinergic system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis signaling. Children with ASD displayed altered (diminished) oxytocin levels in the morning, but not in the afternoon, after a mildly stress-inducing social interaction session. Notably, in the control group, higher oxytocin levels at AM were associated with lower stress-induced cortisol at PM, likely reflective of a protective stress-regulatory mechanism for buffering HPA stress activity. In children with ASD, on the other hand, a significant rise in oxytocin levels from the morning to the afternoon was associated with a higher stress-induced cortisol release in the afternoon, likely reflective of a more reactive stress regulatory release of oxytocin for reactively coping with heightened HPA activity. Regarding epigenetic modifications, no overall pattern of OXTR hypo- or hypermethylation was evident in ASD. In control children, a notable association between OXTR methylation and levels of cortisol at PM was evident, likely indicative of a compensatory downregulation of OXTR methylation (higher oxytocin receptor expression) in children with heightened HPA axis activity. Together, these observations bear important insights into altered oxytocinergic signaling in ASD, which may aid in establishing relevant biomarkers for diagnostic and/or treatment evaluation purposes targeting the oxytocinergic system in ASD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number235
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2023


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