UW News

March 19, 2014

Anti-anxiety drug ameliorates autistic behaviors in mice

UW Medicine

autistics mice

An imbalance in cell signaling systems in the brain appears to be behind autistic behaviors in a strain of mice used to study the condition.Kate Sweeney

A class of drugs used to treat anxiety and epileptic seizure reduces some autistic behaviors in mice, when given in low, non-sedating doses.  These findings point to the possibility of testing a new therapeutic approach to managing autism in people. The findings are reported in the March 19 issue of the CELL journal Neuron.

William Catterall, UW chair and professor  of pharmacology, is senior author of  the research paper.

“These are very exciting results because they suggest that existing drugs, called benzodiazepines, might be useful in treatment of the core deficits in autism,” he said

These deficits include repetitive behaviors and difficulty relating to others. The condition is often accompanied by specific learning problems. Catterall explained that a particular, well-studied strain of mice acts in ways that resemble these autistic traits.  Scientists are interested in their brain chemistry.

Normally, inhibitory nerve cells in the brain send chemical signals that put the brake on excitatory nerve cells. Research indicates that the strain of mice with autistic behaviors have lower activity of inhibitory neurons and higher activity of excitatory neurons in the brain. In the study, scientists restored the balance with low, nonsedating doses of benzodiazipine.

“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 autism animal model that has some similar behavioral features as human autism,” Catterall said.

Read more about the findings at the new site for the UW Health Sciences and UW Medicine news.

See the Neuron paper on the research.