Oxytocin enhances basolateral amygdala activation and functional connectivity while processing emotional faces: preliminary findings in autistic vs non-autistic women.
Oxytocin is hypothesized to promote social interactions by enhancing the salience of social stimuli. While previous neuroimaging studies have reported that oxytocin enhances amygdala activation to face stimuli in autistic men, effects in autistic women remain unclear. In this study, the influence of intranasal oxytocin on activation and functional connectivity of the basolateral amygdala-the brain's 'salience detector'-while processing emotional faces vs shapes was tested in 16 autistic and 21 non-autistic women by functional magnetic resonance imaging in a placebo-controlled, within-subject, cross-over design. In the placebo condition, minimal activation differences were observed between autistic and non-autistic women. However, significant drug × group interactions were observed for both basolateral amygdala activation and functional connectivity. Oxytocin increased left basolateral amygdala activation among autistic women (35-voxel cluster, Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) coordinates of peak voxel = -22 -10 -28; mean change = +0.079%, t = 3.159, PTukey = 0.0166) but not among non-autistic women (mean change = +0.003%, t = 0.153, PTukey = 0.999). Furthermore, oxytocin increased functional connectivity of the right basolateral amygdala with brain regions associated with socio-emotional information processing in autistic women, but not in non-autistic women, attenuating group differences in the placebo condition. Taken together, these findings extend evidence of oxytocin's effects on the amygdala to specifically include autistic women and specify the subregion of the effect.