Major neurological breakthrough in autism could change treatment

© Shannon Stapleton
Scientists at Harvard and MIT have discovered a link between autism symptoms and neurotransmitters. The connection between the GABA neurotransmitter and autistic behavioral symptoms could lead to better treatment options.

The neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for controlling and managing the influx of information to the brain so that it can be processed more easily. While reduced GABA activity has been found in animals with autism-like symptoms, this is the first time a connection has been made between humans with autism and neurotransmitters in the brain.

Caroline Robertson, a postdoctoral scholar at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, explained the importance of the breakthrough. “It’s possible that increasing GABA would help to ameliorate some of the symptoms of autism, but more work needs to be done,” she said.

Hossein Fatemi, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, added that this could lead to a change in treating the symptoms of autism.

“Perhaps, if one were to introduce medications that could either amplify the functions of GABA in the brains of patients with autism that we could actually improve their function,” he said in an interview with RT.

According to the McGovern Institute’s Research magazine, activity in our brains is “controlled by a constant interplay of inhibition and excitation, which is mediated by different neurotransmitters.” The study focused on a specific neurotransmitter, GABA, which contributes to motor control, vision, and sensory inhibition, meaning that it is what filters out irrelevant sensory information.

Hypersensitivity is a common symptom of autism and can take various forms. Doctor Fatemi explained that GABA abnormalities could be responsible for children being unable to make eye contact with their parents and for them having a difficult time bonding with others. But now, with a better idea of the issues behind autism, there is hope that new drugs could target the GABA pathways.

The study shows that autistic brains do not have less GABA function. Rather, it shows that there could be an issue with the inhibitory pathway. Learning to resolve these GABA issues could mean big things for those living with autism and their families, according to Dr. Fatemi.

“This is one of those things that in fact, we can improve the function of GABA, they could communicate better with others, including their parents,” he said.