Have scientists finally solved the mystery behind autism?

A recent breakthrough discovery from researchers at Harvard University could lead to an entirely new paradigm for treating and diagnosing autism.

As we reported earlier, a team of researchers led by Caroline Robertson, a junior fellow from the Harvard Society of Fellows, has just released a landmark study linking a commonly studied neurotransmitter with certain symptoms of autism. The study could pave the way toward a new understanding of the condition, as well as open up the door for new treatment and diagnostics methods.

The study focused on GABA, a prominent inhibitory neurotransmitter found in the brain. Researchers long suspected that autistic behavior may have something to do with the chemical balance inside the brain, but this marks the first time that a neurotransmitter has been specifically linked to autism.

Researchers have been able to show the link between GABA and autism in animals, but the recent study provides some of the first evidence that the link holds up in human brains as well. The discovery may not reveal how to treat autism right away, but it provides a critical reference point from which experimental treatments can be tested.

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and it blocks out unnecessary stimuli so that the brain can process important information first. Autism is marked by the inability to tune out extraneous sensory information, leaving sufferers feeling overwhelmed. Robertson and her team found that autistic adults were much more likely to have lower levels of GABA in their brains, suggesting that they had trouble tuning out extraneous information.

To test this hypothesis, Robertson showed a group of adults, 50 percent of whom had autism, two slightly different images so that they could be seen one from each eye. Known as the binocular rivalry test, it tests a person’s ability to process two separate images from two different eyes into one coherent image that is perceived by the brain.

 

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