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Study hints at brain chemical's role in autism

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Dina Francescutti is part of Dr. Donald Kuhn's neuroscience lab at the Detroit VA Medical Center and Wayne State University. A recent study by the group found autism-like behaviors in mice lacking the gene for the brain chemical serotonin. (Photo by Larry Marchionda)
Autism clue—Dina Francescutti is part of Dr. Donald Kuhn's neuroscience lab at the Detroit VA Medical Center and Wayne State University. A recent study by the group found autism-like behaviors in mice lacking the gene for the brain chemical serotonin. (Photo by Larry Marchionda)

Researchers at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit and Wayne State University found that mice lacking the brain chemical serotonin showed behaviors typical of autism. The mice in the study had been genetically engineered to lack a gene critical for serotonin production. The neurotransmitter is one of the brain's so-called "feel good" chemicals. Studies have traced its role in a range of brain disorders, especially depression and anxiety, but research linking it to autism has been sparser. In the study, mutant mice that were depleted of the brain chemical displayed a range of social and communication deficits, along with repetitive and compulsive behaviors. For example, they failed to show a preference for maternal scent, or to explore new objects in their cage. The researchers say boosting serotonin during critical periods of brain development in early life, even short-term, may have the potential to rewire emerging brain circuits and prevent autism. (PLoS One, Nov. 6, 2012)


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