Autism test and treatment on horizon as scientists find hormone deficiency link
Atest and possible treatment for autism could be on the horizon after scientists discovered that people and primates who are less social are deficient in a particular hormone.
Around 1.1 per cent of the people in Britain, around 695,000 are through to be on the autism spectrum, according to The National Autistic Society, and although many are able to function well, some find the condition severely debilitating.
Doctors have also struggled to accurately diagnose the condition, but now scientists at Stanford University and The University of California Davis believe that measuring levels of the hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP), which regulates blood pressure, could be the answer.
In tests on rhesus monkeys, they found that less social animals had levels of the hormone which were almost one third lower than their more gregarious peers. And a similar deficiency was found in 14 autistic boys.
Although the results are preliminary, the researchers believe their findings suggest that AVP may not only provide a test for autism, but also be a target for developing drugs to alleviate social impairment.
“Since autism affects the brain, it’s really hard to access the biology of the condition to know what might be altered,” said Dr Karen Parker, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the lead author of the new study.
“Right now, the diagnosis is based on parents’ reports of their children’s symptoms, and on clinicians observing children in the clinic.”
For the tests. the scientists measured levels of two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, in the monkeys’ blood and in their cerebrospinal fluid, which bathes the brain.
Both hormones are peptides implicated in a variety of social roles, including parental care and bonds between mates. Some prior studies have hinted that these hormones may also be involved in autism.
Monkeys in the less social group had significantly less vasopressin in their cerebrospinal fluid than monkeys in the more social group.
These vasopressin levels accurately predicted the frequency with which individual monkeys participated in social grooming, an important social activity for rhesus monkeys.
The researchers sampled four times over four months, and showed that vasopressin levels in the fluid were stable over time.
They also compared vasopressin levels in 14 boys with autism and seven age-matched children without autism. Children with autism had lower vasopressin levels than children without autism, the study found.
Senior author Dr John Capitanio, professor of psychology at The University of California Davis said: “What we consider this to be at this point is a biomarker for low sociability.”
The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.