Old drug offers new approach to autism treatment


At its simplest, autism may be characterized by reduced activity of inhibitory neurons and increased activity of excitatory neurons in the brain. Balance can be restored with low doses of a well-known class of drug currently used in high doses to treat anxiety and epileptic seizures. The findings from laboratory mice point to a new way of treating autism.

Existing drugs used in a new way may be helpful

“These are very exciting results because they suggest that existing drugs-called benzodiazepines-might be useful in treatment of the core deficits in autism,” explained senior author Dr. William Catterall of the University of Washington, Seattle. Not only did researchers find that mice with autistic characteristics had an imbalance between the inhibitory and excitatory neurons in their brain, they also found that reducing the effectiveness of inhibitory neurons in normal mice also induced autism-like behaviors. When benzodiazepine drugs were introduced to the mice, they had the opposite effect. The drugs increased the activity of inhibitory neurons and lessened autistic behaviors.

New approach improves social interactions

“Our results provide strong evidence that increasing inhibitory neurotransmission is an effective approach to improvement of social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and cognitive deficits in a well-established animal model of autism, having some similar behavioral features as human autism,” noted Dr. Catterall.

Reduce activity of excitatory neurons while also increasing activity of inhibitory neurons

This new approach differs from current methods which, in animal studies or clinical trials, treat autistic traits by primarily focusing on reducing the activity of excitatory neurons. This approach has only had moderate success. Dr. Catterall and his colleagues suggest continuing with that approach but augment it by increasing the activity of opposing, inhibitory neurons. More studies are needed and one clinical trial is currently in progress.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Neuron
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/orofacial/ at flickr.com

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