Nav: Home

New options for treating autism

November 18, 2015

The researcher Olga Peñagarikano, a Ramón y Cajal researcher in the Department of Pharmacology at the UPV/EHU's Faculty of Medicine, and who has broad experience in the study of the neurobiological causes of autism and intervention in the oxytocin system as a potential treatment for this condition, has contributed towards a piece of research carried out by a team at the University of California, Irvine.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is mainly characterised by a deficit in social behaviour. Oxytocin, a natural hormone produced by the brain, is involved in social behaviour. There have been some clinical trials with humans in which it has been demonstrated that when the amount of oxytocin is increased, there are certain aspects that improve in social interactions. "Today there is as yet no treatment in autism to improve social behaviour, but one of the most promising therapies for ASD is intervention in the oxytocin system," explained the researcher.

It is believed that at least some of the patients with ASD could have a dysfunction in this system. In fact, in another recent publication, the researcher showed that a mouse autism model displayed reduced levels of oxytocin in the brain and that the administering of the hormone improved social behaviour. To do this, she built a viral vector -- a virus that has been modified so that it is not pathogenic, in other words, it does not cause any illness -- to transfer an artificial receptor to the neurons that produce oxytocin in the mouse. This technique, known as DREADD (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs), is a widely used technique in the study of neuronal circuits: it consists of transferring an artificial receptor to the relevant neurons, which will be activated or disabled exclusively through the administering of a specific drug to study the effect.

Anandamide increases the preference for interacting socially

Dr Daniele Piomelli, a researcher at the University of California and expert in endocannabinoids, contacted Peñagarikano to be able to use the vector developed by this Basque researcher in the DREADD technique in a study that has served to demonstrate that the release of oxytocin leads to an increase in the production of anandamide (an endogenous substance produced by the body and which acts on the cannabinoid receptors, the same receptors on which cannabis acts). "My involvement in this work was to share the viral vector needed for the DREADD technique and to supervise its use and offer advice to ensure that it was used successfully," explained Peñagarikano.

The results obtained in the research suggest that one of the mechanisms by which oxytocin causes interpersonal relations to be perceived as pleasant could be through the release of anandamide. When the amount of anandamide was increased, the mice displayed a greater preference for interacting socially. When the oxytocin system is activated, both pharmacologically and through the DREADD technique, an increase in anandamide production occurs. Oxytocin is known to interact with other neurotransmitters in this system, such as serotonin and dopamine. This piece of work "reveals a new component in the system," concluded Peñagarikano, "which could have implications when it comes to developing drugs for conditions affected by impairments in social behaviour, such as autism, and based on the modulation of this circuit".
-end-
Additional information

Dr Olga Peñagarikano (Tolosa, Basque Country, 1974) recently (2015) joined the Department of Pharmacology at the UPV/EHU Faculty of Medicine as a Ramón y Cajal researcher. She spent 6 years working at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a post-doctoral researcher. Her work focusses on studying the neurobiological causes of autism in order to come up with treatments, and right now she is exploring intervention in the oxytocin system as a potential treatment for autism in a project being funded by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation in the United States (formerly NARSAD).

Bibliographical reference

Don Wei, DaYeon Lee, Conor D. Cox, Carley A. Karsten, Olga Peñagarikano, Daniel H. Geschwind, Christine M. Gall, Daniele Piomelli. "Endocannabinoid signaling mediates oxytocin-driven social reward". PNAS. Published online before print on Oct. 26, 2015.

University of the Basque Country

Related Autism Articles:

Genes, ozone, and autism
Exposure to ozone in the environment puts individuals with high levels of genetic variation at an even higher risk for developing autism than would be expected just by adding the two risk factors together, a new analysis shows.
A blood test for autism
An algorithm based on levels of metabolites found in a blood sample can accurately predict whether a child is on the autism spectrum of disorder (ASD), based upon a recent study.
New form of autism found
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect around one percent of the world's population and are characterized by a range of difficulties in social interaction and communication.
Autism Speaks MSSNG study expands understanding of autism's complex genetics
A new study from Autism Speaks' MSSNG program expands understanding of autism's complex causes and may hold clues for the future development of targeted treatments.
Paths to Autism: One or Many?
A new report in Biological Psychiatry reports that brain alterations in infants at risk for autism may be widespread and affect multiple systems, in contrast to the widely held assumption of impairment specifically in social brain networks.
Raising a child with autism
Humans are resilient, even facing the toughest of life's challenges.
Explaining autism
Recognizing a need to better understand the biology that produces Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms, scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Singapore, have teamed up and identified a novel mechanism that potentially links abnormal brain development to the cause of ASDs.
Autism breakthrough
Using a visual test that is known to prompt different reactions in autistic and normal brains, Harvard researchers have shown that those differences were associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway used by GABA, one of the brain's chief inhibitory neurotransmitters.
New options for treating autism
The release of oxytocin leads to an increase in the production of anandamide, which causes mice to display a preference for interacting socially.
The Autism Science Foundation launches the Autism Sisters Project
The Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding autism research, today announced the launch of the Autism Sisters Project, a new initiative that will give unaffected sisters of individuals with autism the opportunity to take an active role in accelerating research into the 'Female Protective Effect.'

Related Autism Reading:

Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism
by Barry M. Prizant (Author)

A Parent's Guide to High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, Second Edition: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive
by Sally Ozonoff (Author), Geraldine Dawson (Author), James C. McPartland (Author)

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
by Naoki Higashida (Author), KA Yoshida (Translator), David Mitchell (Translator)

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
by Steve Silberman (Author), Oliver Sacks (Foreword)

The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
by Elizabeth Verdick (Author), Elizabeth Reeve M.D. (Author)

Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew: Updated and Expanded Edition
by Ellen Notbohm (Author), Veronica Zysk (Editor)

An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn
by Sally J. Rogers (Author), Geraldine Dawson (Author), Laurie A. Vismara (Author)

Eating for Autism: The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child’s Autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD
by Elizabeth Strickland (Author)

101 Games and Activities for Children With Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders
by Tara Delaney (Author)

I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism (A First Look At...Series)
by Pat Thomas (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Right To Speak
Should all speech, even the most offensive, be allowed on college campuses? And is hearing from those we deeply disagree with ... worth it? This hour, TED speakers explore the debate over free speech. Guests include recent college graduate Zachary Wood, political scientist Jeffrey Howard, novelist Elif Shafak, and journalist and author James Kirchick.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#486 Volcanoes
This week we're talking volcanoes. Because there are few things that fascinate us more than the amazing, unstoppable power of an erupting volcano. First, Jessica Johnson takes us through the latest activity from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii to help us understand what's happening with this headline-grabbing volcano. And Janine Krippner joins us to highlight some of the lesser-known volcanoes that can be found in the USA, the different kinds of eruptions we might one day see at them, and how damaging they have the potential to be. Related links: Kilauea status report at USGS A beginner's guide to Hawaii's otherworldly...