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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