Nav: Home

New brain target for potential treatment of social pathology in autism spectrum disorder

February 07, 2017

Researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science have induced empathy-like behavior by identifying then manipulating a brain circuit in an experimental model, an indication that new strategies may help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gain social abilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children is living with an ASD, the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the U.S., with associated costs estimated at between $12 billion and $61 billion.

ASD can impair empathy, the ability to share and understand the feelings of others, which is aided by the ability to read facial expression, tone of voice and other social cues.

The study, led by Chicago Medical School Professor Amiel Rosenkranz, Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, sheds light on the specific role of the amygdala, an often overlooked brain region, in social behavior and its pathology in autism. There are no approved pharmacological approaches that target the social impairments in ASD. The development of new approaches requires a better understanding of the neural changes that cause the main symptoms of ASD. This study is a major step toward that goal.

Published Jan. 23 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the findings change the conceptualization of the brain regions important in empathy and provide the rationale to target the amygdala in certain forms of ASD.

Investigators measured the empathy-like responses of a rodent while witnessing an "actor" rodent respond to a mild "startle." The "witness" quickly developed behaviors that matched the startled subject, reflecting a behavior that is a foundation for empathy. In addition, the witness learned that the emotional cues produced by the actor indicate that something in the environment may be dangerous. However, when parts of the amygdala were shut down, the witness did not show empathy-like responses toward the other. Specifically, the medial amygdala was required for the witness to display empathy, while a circuit from the lateral nucleus of the amygdala to the medial (LA-MeA) was required to learn that the behavior of the actor signaled danger in the environment.

To gain insight into the relevance of these findings for ASD, the study then examined impaired empathy caused by experimental deletion of Nrxn1, an analog of a human autism-associated gene (NRXN). Deletion of Nrxn1 was associated with a lack of empathy-like behavior in the witness, which investigators found to be correlated with poor neuronal function in the LA-MeA circuit. Switching on the LA-MeA circuit in the non-empathic witness led to the emergence of empathic behaviors. The findings identify a specific anatomy in the amygdala that may underlie empathy and demonstrate a particular pathology in the amygdala that may induce social difficulties caused by autism-related mutations.
-end-


Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science

Related Autism Articles:

Brain protein mutation from child with autism causes autism-like behavioral change in mice
A de novo gene mutation that encodes a brain protein in a child with autism has been placed into the brains of mice.
Autism and theory of mind
Theory of mind, or the ability to represent other people's minds as distinct from one's own, can be difficult for people with autism.
Potential biomarker for autism
A study of young children with autism spectrum disorder published in JNeurosci reveals altered brain waves compared to typically developing children during a motor control task.
Autism and the smell of fear
Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense of smell may also play a central role in autism.
Autism often associated with multiple new mutations
Most autism cases are in families with no previous history of the disorder.
More Autism News and Autism Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...