Neurotransmitter Linked to Autism: New Possibilities for Treatment

First Posted: Dec 18, 2015 11:55 AM EST

A new discovery could offer valuable new insights into understanding and even treating autism. For the first time ever, scientists have linked a specific neurotransmitter in the brain with autistic behavior.

"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 Caroline Robertson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In addition, people with autism often have seizures-there is a 20 to 25 percent co-morbidity between autism and epilepsy-and we think seizures are runaway excitation in the brain."

In this latest study, the researchers looked for an easily replicable test that produced consistently different results in those with and without autism. In this case, they found it in what is known as binocular rivalry.

Normally, the brain is presented with two slightly different images from each eye that it averages to create the single image we see every day. During the binocular rivalry test, though, each eye is forced to take in very different images. Eventually, the brain "rocks" back and forth between the two different images so that you see a different image every so often. However, an autistic person can take twice as long to "rock" between the two images.

The researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy in order to measure the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. While those with autism showed normal levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, GABA was far lower than expected.

"What we think we're seeing is evidence of a deficit in the GABA-ergic signaling pathway," said Robertson. "It's not that there's no GABA in the's that there's some step along the pathway that's broken."

The findings could be huge when it comes to better understand and possibly treating autism. With that said, more studies will have to be done on the signaling pathway.

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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