A new study conducted by researchers in Mississippi and California was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier in February and claims they may have found a way to rewire the brain to possibly treat autism.
Dr. Rick Lin, a professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and co-author of the study, explains how researchers were able to use a method called intense auditory behavioral training on rats to observe outcomes of the treatment.
The rats were first injected with a drug in order to stimulate serotonin receptors, causing the rats to exhibit autism-like symptoms. They began to show antisocial behavior towards each other and acted very atypical of a normal rat.
“The rats, they were just not going to play with one another,” Lin explained. “Just how a child with autism prefers to play by himself, so were these animals. They were also super nervous, and when we would try to excite them with noise, they would just freeze – that’s not typical of a rat.”
Dr. Michael Merzenich of UCSF worked alongside the teams to subject the rats to a series of tones and ticks that Dr. Ian Paul, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UMMC, explains can create “plasticity”, meaning the brain actually changes over time. Dr. Paul explained that when the rats heard the noises, they were hearing them at distorted frequencies, causing them to sound muffled – similar to what children with autism sometimes experience.
“Through this training, animals progressively sharpened their abilities to distinguish the fine difference between the sounds that they had heard. This training had a dramatic impact on all of the autism-like neurological distortions in their brains,” Merzenich concluded.
The study lasted two months and showed promising results for the populations of male rats exclusively. Scientists still don’t know why, but autism is four times more likely to affect males than females. In proportion, if this treatment was to be conducted on humans, it would last about two years in a normal child’s life. Although this treatment is still new, the researchers of the study are confident that their findings in coordination more support and effort can bring hope to families suffering from the effects of autism.
Written by Mara Papleo, Cleveland State University