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Reduced attentional preference for faces and symptoms of social anxiety are common in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The neuropeptide oxytocin triggers anxiolytic functions and enhances eye gaze, facial emotion recognition and neural correlates of face processing in ASD. Here we investigated whether a single dose of oxytocin increases attention to faces in ASD. As a secondary question, we explored the influence of social anxiety on these effects. We tested for oxytocin’s effects on attention to neutral faces as compared to houses in a sample of 29 autistic individuals and 30 control participants using a dot-probe paradigm with two different presentation times (100 or 500 ms). A single dose of 24 IU oxytocin was administered in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled, cross-over design. Under placebo, ASD individuals paid less attention to faces presented for 500 ms than did controls. Oxytocin administration increased the allocation of attention toward faces in ASD to a level observed in controls. Secondary analyses revealed that these oxytocin effects primarily occurred in ASD individuals with high levels of social anxiety who were characterized by attentional avoidance of faces under placebo. Our results confirm a positive influence of intranasal oxytocin on social attention processes in ASD. Further, they suggest that oxytocin may in particular restore the attentional preference for facial information in ASD individuals with high social anxiety. We conclude that oxytocin’s anxiolytic properties may partially account for its positive effects on socio-cognitive functioning in ASD, such as enhanced eye gaze and facial emotion recognition.


School of Psychology

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.