Researchers Make a Major Breakthrough in Autism Research

xray image of human head with brain and electric pulsesAutism research is an ongoing and extensive field, with few major breakthroughs as the years go by. But last week, researchers discovered something that could change the shape of neurological autism research: for the very first time, scientists have discovered a link between autistic behavior and a specific neurotransmitter in the brain.

The study, published in Current Biology, found that symptoms of autism seem to stem from issues processing GABA, also known as gamma-Aminobutyric acid. GABA is an inhibitory transmitter that prevents brain cells from responding to sensory information.

“Autism is often described as a disorder in which all the sensory input comes flooding in at once, so the idea that an inhibitory neurotransmitter was important fit with the clinical observations,” said lead researcher, Caroline Robertson.

While neurotypical individuals are able to tune out normal sights and sounds, such as a car alarm in the distance or the scraping of a spoon, individuals with autism are flooded with sensory overload, turning normal experiences into rather stressful experiences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 50 of all school-age children are diagnosed with and fall on the autism spectrum. Additionally, 25% of those with autism have epilepsy, due to what Robertson calls a “runaway excitation in the brain.”

Individuals with autism have difficulty with visual tasks and aren’t able to focus on images and process them. For the study, the researchers combined a visual test with a neuroimaging test that measured the amount of GABA.

For participants with autism that had a hard time with the visual task, their levels of GABA were lower.

This suggests that there’s an issue with the way that GABA is used or processed.

“It’s not that there’s no GABA in the brain,” said Robertson. “It’s that there’s some step along that pathway that’s broken.”

This research could be revolutionary in the way that researchers reduce sensory symptoms for people with autism.

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