A team of scientists from Harvard University has located a particular neurotransmitter with characteristics that are consistent with autism in the brain, and according to details in Harvard Gazette, the researchers say the finding could impact on how autism is diagnosed and maybe treated.
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The leader of the team, Caroline Robertson, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, disclosed that the team ran a series of tests on health and autistic brains in order to be able to determine the variations that occur when GABA, one of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters, is being operative.
In the finding published in the journal Current Biology on December 17, the researchers noted that the discovery may not bring a breakthrough in treating autism, but it would sure help researchers to gain insights into what neurotransmitters do and how GABA impacts these functions.
“This is the first time, in humans, that a neurotransmitter in the brain has been linked to autistic behavior — full stop,” Robertson said. “This theory that the GABA signaling pathway plays a role in autism has been shown in animal models, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans.”
Scientists had long thought that GABA plays a role in autism development, but they have not been able to fully substantiate this with convincing evidence. Robertson revealed that autism is believed to be a disorder where all sensory functions commence at once, and clinical tests confirm the role of inhibitory neurotransmitters in this.
“In addition, people with autism often have seizures — there is a 20 to 25 percent comorbidity between autism and epilepsy — and we think seizures are runaway excitation in the brain,” she clarified.
To replicate results obtained in tests, the scientists went all out to test the idea of binocular rivalry in people with or without autism.
The two human eyes take in two different images that the brain synchronizes into one which represents what is actually seen, but under the binocular rivalry condition, the brain produces the dual images that each eye takes in. But people with autism can experience an oscillation that causes the brain to switch to one image or the other in a very short time.
“Where the average person might rock back and forth between the two images every three seconds, an autistic person might take twice as long,” she said. “They spend the same amount of time in the steady state, where they see only one image, as the average person. It just takes them longer to switch between them, and the second image is not as deeply suppressed.”
The scientists also resorted using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure the amount of brain neurotransmitters via a brain-imaging technique, and discovered autistic patients had the normal levels of neurotransmitters but much lower GABA.
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Robertson disclosed that analysis showed autistic patients have GABA in their brain, but its pathway may be broken. She noted that while fully understanding the signaling pathway for GABA does not indicate a cure for all autism, it shows GABA among other molecules in the brain plays a role in autism.