California Research with Foals Provides Insight for Autism

Autism and Developmentally Delayed Foals

At the very core of things, humans and animals have much in common. We may have enlightened consciences and higher-order methods of thinking, but at the end of the day, we are alike in a myriad of ways. A research project going on at the University of California, Davis proves just that.

Recently, Dr. Isaac Pessah of molecular biosciences and Dr. John Madigan of the veterinary school, have begun to look into the relationship between autism and a developmental disorder in newborn horses. The foals with this disorder exhibit social detachment and fail to recognize their mothers. This disorder, known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome (also called dummy foal syndrome), was originally attributed to hypoxia at birth. However, researchers have since identified that this disorder’s origins lies not in the birth itself, but the circumstances surrounding the birth.

In utero, foals are kept quiet by naturally occurring neurosteriods that sustain the pregnancy. Typically, at birth, these calming steroids are switched off as the foal readies itself for survival outside the womb; however, for some this simply does not seem to happen. Researchers believe that in some births (specifically rapid births and emergency C-sections), these affected foals do not have the time for their neurobiology to adapt to the new circumstance and switch off the neurosteroids. As a result, they seem detached, if not entirely asleep.

Madigan recently came up with a method for decreasing the symptoms of neonatal maladjustment syndrome in foals. By looping the foals’ torsos several times with a soft rope and squeezing them, veterinarians are able to mimic the feeling of birth for the foal. After holding the foal in this position for twenty minutes, they’ve found that some of the foals have recovered from their previous symptoms.

Owing to the nature and symptoms of neonatal maladjustment syndrome, Pessah and Madigan believe it may be a strain of autism found in animals. Currently, they attribute this social maladjustment to some sort of disruption in the transition of fetal consciousness. To further study the matter, the two researchers have teamed up with other veterinarians, physicians, epidemiologists, and basic science researchers at Stanford. They meet under the name of the Comparative Neurology Research Group and hope to contribute what they can towards a better understanding of autism roots and causes.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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