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Serotonin Triggering in Mice Brains May Indicate a Cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Image of a mouse covering its eyes.
Obtained from Pixabay.

Triggering serotonin in a specific part of the brain may normalize social behavior for those with autism spectrum disorder. 

A study conducted by researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine reveals that triggering serotonin release to a particular section of autism-modeled mice brains normalized social behavior. The importance of the study lies in the fact that if this response could be replicated in human subjects, patients with autism spectrum disorder could become happier through increased socialization with friends and family.

The study was led Robert Malenka, a Nancy Friend Pritzker Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is also the Deputy Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and a member of Stanford Bio-X. Postdoctoral scholar Jessica Walsh was the lead author of the study.

Drugs That Trigger Serotonin Release Could Cure Patients Suffering From Disorders Resulting in Social Deficits

Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that plays several different roles in the body, but is most commonly recognized as the brain chemical responsible for “happiness.” While its primary responsibilities revolve around regulation, it can also affect sociability. People suffering from autism spectrum disorder typically do not mix well with others; depending on where an individual lies on the spectrum, they may have socialization akin to introverts, or can be as far as to being “nonverbal” and only using gestural means of communication. These patients on the deeper end of autism also tend to display minimal joy from social interaction and the typical “feel good” mood that comes from socializing with others.

Dr. Malenka disclosed that the study examines an understudied brain dysfunction which makes it difficult for some people to derive pleasure from social interactions. He said that if health experts could fully comprehend how brain mechanisms contribute to social deficits, then successfully treating people suffering from social withdrawal disorders would be easy. This group of people he refers to are largely patients of autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia and other disorders involving chemical imbalances in the brain.

To determine how manipulating serotonin in a particular portion of the brain could cure social disorders in mice, the researchers manipulated the release of the chemical in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain typically associated with the feeling of being rewarded for performing a certain action. The ultimate motive is to develop drugs that could trigger a similar serotonin release in the nucleus accumbens to increase feelings of reward with increased social interaction.

Mice Brains Serve as an Important Tool for Learning More About the Human Brain

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) increase the amount of serotonin that can be absorbed by brain cells, but these drugs have not yet demonstrated significant potential for curing social deficits associated with autism spectrum disorder.

“Mice aren’t little human beings,” Malenka says. “We can’t ask them how they’re feeling about their social lives. But they provide insights into the human brain. They can be very useful for studying relatively primitive mechanisms governing social behavior. For example, if something makes a mouse want to spend more time with its buddies, that something is likely to be fun for the mouse.”

On that note, we can only hope that the correct sites for serotonin release can be identified so our autistic friends and family can enjoy the socialization experienced by their laboratory mice counterparts.

 

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