The exact cause of autism has long eluded scientists, but a team at Stanford has made a breakthrough that could lead toward future researchers pinpointing the development disorder's exact cause -- and maybe even finding a cure for it.
The scientists examined a group of autistic mice and found that the rodents' brain cells were intact, showing no signs of damage, but had trouble communicating with each other in the same way that non-autistic mice's brains do, according to The Mercury News.
"It is valuable for understanding," said Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the university. "It gives us knowledge that we did not have before: a change you make at the cellular level can correct an autism-related social deficit."
Those who have autism typically struggle with socialization and tend to engage in repetitive behaviors.
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"Social interaction may be the hardest thing a mammal can do," Deisseroth said. "It's an immensely complex phenomenon that requires rapid, highly integrated communication among disparate, distant parts of the brain."
On an even more astounding note, the researchers, whose findings were initially released in an Aug. 2 publication of Science Translational Medicine, were able to introduce certain genes that impact which neurons activated and which were suppressed. Changing the balance of those genes had a major impact on the mice's behavior, making them more social and curious and less prone to pacing -- in other words, it created more "normal" behavior.
"There is a change that you can make in excitation and inhibition at the cellular level that can correct an autism-related social deficit,” said Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
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This is in line with UCSF psychiatrist John Rubenstein's hypothesis that autism is caused by an imbalance of inhibition and excitation signals in the brain, though it was not known that, according to the study, those signals come from brain cells.
"What we have not done is create a treatment," noted Desseroth. "We've tested a hypothesis of how social behavior might be corrected with cellular level rebalancing."
Autism might not yet have a cure, but with an estimated one in 80 children in the U.S. being diagnosed with it, the cause of the developmental disorder is a popular and often-debated issue that sometimes leads a sizeable amount of parents to resort to drastic measures -- most popularly, not vaccinating their children -- in the hopes of avoiding it.
A growing number of pet owners are even following suit, declining to have their dogs vaccinated for distemper, hepatitis and rabies out of fear of their animals contracting autism and other disorders, notes The Brooklyn Paper.