New Treatment Reverses Autism Symptoms In Mice

human brain connectomeConnections in the human brain.

Photo: Human Connectome Project, Science, March 2012.

A new treatment seems to reverse the symptoms of autism in mice, researchers said in a study published Nov. 21 in the journal Nature.Researchers think that autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are caused by complex genetic and environmental factors that haven’t been fully understood. These diseases affect about 1 in 110 people.

Each genetic factor that researchers have discovered only account for about one per cent of ASDs, a better understanding of how and why these genetic changes cause the symptoms of ASDs can help them design treatments or prevent the disorders in the first place.

These genetic factors led the researchers to investigate certain brain pathways in mice genetically engineered to lack the gene Eif4ebp2, one of those pinpointed in previous research to be connected to autistic brain changes. Without the gene, brain proteins known as neuroligins are produced at higher levels, making neurons more sensitive to signals, which researchers believe could be an underlying cause of autism symptoms.

The mutated mice showed autistic-like repetitive behaviours and spent significantly less time interacting with other mice. The researchers tested a drug that decreases neuroligin levels and reverses these autistic behaviours, though the mice were still missing the gene that caused their autism.

Sadly, “the drug we used would be too toxic to use for ASDs,” study researcher Nahum Sonenberg, told Nature News. “But we’ve shown that this pathway is important, identified potential therapeutic targets and demonstrated that a drug therapy is possible in principle.”

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