New Study Discovers Brain Target For Possible Treatment Of Social Pathology In Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Feb 20, 2017 10:58 PM EST

A new study by researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science has found that it is possible to induce empathy-like behavior in persons with autism by identifying then manipulating a brain circuit in an experimental model. This is an indication that new strategies may help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gain social abilities.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated that one in 68 children is living with an ASD. The CDC also describes it as the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United State with an associated cost of between $12 billion and $61 billion.

ASD is characterized by impairing empathy and the inability to share and understand the feelings of others, aided by the ability to read facial expression, the tone of voice and other social cues. The recent study sheds more light on the specific role of the amygdale - an often overlooked region of the brain - in social behavior and its pathology in autism, according to Medical Express.

However, there is still no approved pharmacological approach that targets the social impairments in patients with ASD. The development of new approaches requires a better understanding of the neural changes that cause the main symptoms of ASD and the study is said to be a major step toward that goal.

The researchers believe that the finding of the new study has changed the conceptualization of the brain regions necessary for empathy and has provided a rationale to target the amygdala in some forms of ASD. They measured the empathy-like responses of a rodent as they watched an actor rodent respond to a mild startle.

The witness immediately developed behaviors that were similar to the startled subject, reflecting actions that are a foundation for empathy. The witness also learned that the emotional cues displayed by the actor suggested that something in the environment may be dangerous.

Furthermore, the researchers found that when parts of the amygdala were shut down, the witness did not display empathy-like responses toward the other. The medial amygdale, in particular, was required for the witness to show empathy and a circuit from the lateral nucleus of the amygdala to the medial was necessary for learning that the behavior of the actor is a sign of danger in the environment.

The researchers then examined impaired empathy caused by experimental deletion of Nrxn1 - an analog of a human autism-associated gene - to gain insight into the importance of these findings for ASD. The deletion of Nrxn1 was associated with an absence of empathy-like behavior in the witness, which is reported to be related to poor neuronal function in the LA-MeA circuit, according to Science Daily.

The researchers noted that switching on the LA-MeA circuit in non-empathic witnesses brought about the emergence of empathic behaviors. They noted that their findings were able to identify a specific anatomy in the amygdala that may underlie empathy and demonstrate certain pathology in the amygdala that could lead to social difficulties as a result of autism-related mutations. They published their findings Jan. 23 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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