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Drug Sheds Light on Underlying Cause of Autism

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on February 11, 2014


Background: With so many different genetic and environmental influences on autism, researchers are seeking a common link among risk factors. One thought is that different risk factors affect neuron function through a similar mechanism. For example, during birth there are maternal hormones that help the fetus deal with the stress of delivery and prepare the brain for post-natal development. Recent research suggests that understanding the dynamics of these hormones gives significant insight into newborn brain development.


What’s new: An animal study demonstrated that bumetanide, a commonly used diuretic drug, alters the effect of these maternal hormones. Researchers used two animal models of autism: one genetic and one drug-induced. In each model, the rodent’s progeny failed to undergo the typical brain changes in response to the labor hormone oxytocin. However, when the researchers administered bumetanide one day before delivery, the rodent’s offspring showed normal neuron function and fewer autism-like symptoms. According to the study, bumetanide enabled specific neurons to switch from an excitatory to an inhibitory state by changing chloride levels in the neuron.


Why it’s important: This study sheds light on autism’s underlying mechanism, linking both genetic and environmental risk factors to oxytocin’s effect on brain changes during birth. The finding, reported in the February 7, 2014, edition of Science magazine, supports a common mechanism for autism and paves the way for novel therapeutic strategies.

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