Studies on Monkeys Give Hope for Mental Disease


In late July new autism research results were published on the brains of rhesus monkeys. The researchers from UC Davis, including UC Davis psychiatry professor David Amaral, shed some light on the treatments for human behavioral health conditions.

What we know currently is that there is no medicine to cure abnormal brain development and mental disorders. However, Professor Amaral’s study involves re-engineering specific cells so they respond to medicine instead of a body’s normal signals, opening the door to treatments that would alter the way malfunctioning brain cells interact with each other. For autism, it would be very helpful to know how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, as this is something that still eludes scientists.

The method Professor Amaral and his team use is called DREADD. It stands for Designer Receptor Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs.Amaral and his team “turned off” a certain part of a primate’s brain so the scientists could study how closing one function would affect other parts of the brain. This is intended to help them understand how the brain works and which malfunctioning cells cause mental disorders.

The research has been ongoing for months. It started with an operation in which Amaral inserted a manufactured gene into the neurons of four macaques. He targeted the amygdala, a portion of the brain that is associated with fear, pleasure, depression and anxiety. They had seen that the receptors became responsive only to a kind of a drug that temporarily floods and “turns off” the entire brain cell instead of ignoring normal chemical signals in the body (the “designer receptors” and the “designer drug” in the DREADD acronym).

Several months after the surgery, they did an MRI scanning and noticed that the drug succeeded in shutting down the amygdala, which in turn triggered different kinds of activity in other parts of the brain. All of this helps in forming brain maps of how different regions interact, where diseases originate, and eventually the most effective intervention methods.

During these studies, the monkeys were kept in large enclosures, cared for by veterinarians, and fed local produce. The tests were humane in that the monkeys’ brains could return to their natural state after the tests were completed. However, the scientists had the 4 macaques used in the study euthanized so that they could study the autopsies of the animals to make sure the genes continued to produce receptors for the drug a year after the surgery.

While no one prefers studies on animals, Dr. Amaral stated that these studies are more humane, and that this way they can show that this intervention is “safe for humans” and can then be performed on humans. While they are still a long way away from that, Professor Amaral does believe that “Things are really moving rapidly, and gene therapy will be used in humans and it will be based in part on proof of safety that we’re demonstrating here.”

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Autism, ADHD, & OCD More Similar Than We Thought

pouting-child-1436186-1279x850Autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may have more in common than previously thought. A recent study by the American Journal of Psychiatry involved brain imaging of white matter and discovered there were impairments in the main tract connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

This main tract is called the corpus callosum and is the largest tract in the brain and one of the first regions to develop. The white matter in this tract enables communication between different brain regions using nerve fiber connections. The scientists found that children with autism and ADHD had more severe impairments affecting the brain’s white matter than children with OCD but this is most likely due to the fact that ADHD and autism have an earlier onset than OCD and so the corpus callosum is likely more affected due to this.

Autism, ADHD, and OCD have commonalities in gene mutations and symptoms and yet they’ve been regarded as three separate disorders. However, the common behavior impairments across all three disorders have been either attention problems, social difficulties, or a combination of the two, all of which vary based on the individual and severity. The fact that they’re so similar raises the question of where similarities stop, biologically and in definition and if, perhaps, all three are part of a larger encompassing disease.

Hopefully this study will highlight the brain structure’s relation to behavior impairment and the shared biology of certain conditions. Furthermore, the study may increase the amount of treatments available by encouraging the sharing of treatments previously thought to be valid for only one specific condition that may, as we are learning now, be effective for others.

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Autism May Stem From Heightened Senses

girl hand
In a recent study done by Harvard Medical School and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, autism may not just involve a brain disorder but also defects to the nervous system. In the study, researchers examined mice with defects only in their peripheral sensory neurons, the nerves found throughout the limbs, digits, and other parts of the body that communicate sensory information to the brain.

The defects to the neurons was caused by mutations (limited to the nervous system) of genes that are associated to ASD. By studying mice with only these gene mutations they were able to see the ultimate effects of the nervous system in itself on ASD as well as what effects a hypersensitivity to touch can have in general.

The scientists were able to show in their immediate results that mice with ASD-associated gene mutations have deficits in tactile perception, as you would imagine. In further results, they found that the mice with ASD gene mutations only in peripheral sensory neurons were more anxious around other mice and interacted less with them. The scientists were able to deduce that a greatly heightened level of touch can very much affect how one interacts with their environment and how they navigate the world around them.

Furthermore, they hypothesize that defects in touch could explain some pathologies and behaviors observed in patients with ASD. Due to this more direct connection with the nervous system, as opposed to the broad link to genes alone, the investigation is now taking a rapid turn towards finding genetic and pharmaceutical approaches to bringing peripheral sensory neuron levels back to a normal state. Perhaps, this will bring us a little closer to finding treatments as well as a better understanding of the complex nature of autism.

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Is Autism All Stemming from One Gene?

A recent study led by psychologists at the University of Georgia has detected that people with autism may have less ability to form healthy relationships or recognize emotional states due to a process called methylation and its effect in the production of oxytocin.

The study’s lead author, Brian W. Haas, quoted that “Methylation restricts how much a gene is expressed. An increase in methylation corresponds to a decrease in the expression of a gene. When methylation increases on the OXT gene, this may correspond to a reduction in this gene’s activity.” This would mean that those with higher levels of methylation processing would have decreased levels of the oxytocin hormone which, Haas states “can have a profound impact on social behaviors.”

In the studies they found that participants with greater methylation levels and less oxytocin had more difficulty recognizing emotional facial expressions and had more anxiety about relationships with loved ones. They also found that those individuals had reduced neural activity in brain regions associated with social-cognitive processing during tasks where these areas should have been activated.

Haas believes that methylation can be altered during a persons lifetime and it’s possible that medication could help people who have difficulty with social cognition. He and his co-authors believe there is still a lot of work to be done to discover the exact role of oxytocin, but they hope that in the future they can better understand this hormone and genes related to it and find better treatments for social disorders.

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Does Autism Speed Aging?

Everyone is always discussing the importance of diagnosing Autism early, but to what extent and effect? Recent studies have found that communication has improved for those children diagnosed early and that it may be possible that certain people on the spectrum adapt almost to the effect that their earlier diagnosis becomes unrecognizable.

Now, the Barrow Neurological Institute and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) in Phoenix are accepting men ages 18-25 and 40-60 who can return to Phoenix every 2 years for a new study. They are hoping to find the exact differences in the brain between those who are diagnosed young and received early treatment and those who are diagnosed much later on in life and receive less treatment. Among the many hypotheses, they believe they may see a correspondence in Autism and the expedience of aging itself. Their main goal is, as it has been for so long, finding the neurological key to a world of independence for those with ASD.

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