The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition present from early childhood that causes affected individuals to have difficulty in communicating and interacting with other people.
Although there are early intervention therapies that can help in an autistic child's development, no cure is yet available for autism. A study involving mice with mohawk hairstyles, however, could pave way to the development of an autism treatment in the future.
For the study "Cntnap4 differentially contributes to GABAergic and dopaminergic synaptic transmission" which was published in the journal Nature on May 25, researchers genetically engineered a group of mice to lack a protein known as Cntnap4, which earlier studies have linked with autism.
The protein is involved in the release of brain chemicals that are also in the transmission of signals between neurons called dopamine. It sends signals that relay pleasing sensations, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which plays a role in impulse control. The genetic mutations resulted in the dopamine to be overstimulated and GABA to be understimulated.
The researchers observed that as the mice reach adulthood, their heads were groomed with mohawk-like hairstyles. Since mice groom each other's hair, the researchers knew that they were onto something because the animal's peculiar hairstyle suggests that they were compulsively and repetitively grooming each other, a behavior similar to the compulsive and repetitive behaviors associated with people who have autism.
The behaviors exhibited by the mice suggest that autistic behavior is linked with brain functions and genetics. Study researcher Gordon James Fishell, from the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology of New York University's Lagone Medical Center, said that the findings of their study could lead to testing in humans that could possibly result in new treatments for some forms of autism.
"There have been many candidate genes implicated in contributing to autism, but animal and human studies to identify their action have so far not led to any therapies," Fishell said. "Our research suggests that reversing the disease's effects in signaling pathways like GABA and dopamine are potential treatment options."
Experts do not yet know the exact causes of autism albeit genetic is believed to affect risks. Fishell and colleagues plan to make additional studies on how the production of GABA and dopamine changes as the cells in the brain mature and what cellular mechanisms play a role in autism.