Scientists at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio suggest that up to 30 percent of autism cases may involve a disruption in how the brain processes the neurotransmitter serotonin.
The team has been studying strains of mice that exhibit some of the behaviors characteristic of autism, such as difficulty with social interaction and repetitive behaviors.
In the current experiment, the researchers treated these mice with a drug called Buspirone, which increases the action of serotonin in the brain. With this treatment, the mice became more social and interacted with stranger mice more easily.
Here’s what that means for our understanding of autism’s causes and possible treatments:
We already know that serotonin plays a role in anxiety, sleep, and happiness — and drugs that act on serotonin are used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (in addition to depression and anxiety). OCD and the repetitive behaviors of some children with autism are different, but could have underlying neurochemical similarities.
But we also know that autism is a complex disorder with many genetic components (in varying combinations). The idea that one or more of the genes involved could disrupt serotonin is one piece of the puzzle — it may be true for some children and not for others.
There have been studies of doctors using SSRI medications (which increase serotonin) for the treatment of certain autism features with a degree of success.
Next, scientists are on to studying how a diet high in trytophan (a serotonin precursor) could affect social behavior in mice. Loading up on turkey to treat a developmental disorder sounds like a stretch to me, but still, I’m interested in following how this story of autism and serotonin unfolds.