Century-old drug reverses signs of autism in mice

By Elizabeth Norton

A single dose of a century-old drug has eliminated autism symptoms in adult mice with an experimental form of the disorder. Originally developed to treat African sleeping sickness, the compound, called suramin, quells a heightened stress response in neurons that researchers believe may underlie some traits of autism. The finding raises the hope that some hallmarks of the disorder may not be permanent, but could be correctable even in adulthood.

That hope is bolstered by reports from parents who describe their autistic children as being caught behind a veil. “Sometimes the veil parts, and the children are able to speak and play more normally and use words that didn’t seem to be there before, if only for a short time during a fever or other stress” says Robert Naviaux, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in metabolic disorders.

Research also shows that the veil can be parted. In 2007, scientists found that 83% of children with autism disorders showed temporary improvement during a high fever. The timing of a fever is crucial, however: A fever in the mother can confer a higher risk for the disorder in the unborn child.

As a specialist in the cell’s life-sustaining metabolic processes, Naviaux was intrigued. Autism is generally thought to result from scrambled signals at synapses, the points of contact between nerve cells. But given the specific effects of something as general as a fever, Naviaux wondered if the problem lay “higher up” in the cell’s metabolism.

To test the idea, he and colleagues focused on a process called the cell danger response, by which the cell protects itself from threats like infection, temperature changes, and toxins. As part of this strategy, Naviaux explains, “the cells behave like countries at war. They harden their borders. They don’t trust their neighbors.” If the cells in question are neurons, he says, disrupted communication could result—perhaps underlying the social difficulties; heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, and sensations; and intolerance for anything new that often afflict patients with autism.  Continue reading

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