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New Autism Therapy Shown To Restore Social Behavior Through Brain Stimulation

UT Southwestern Medical Center
A magnified image of a part of a mouse's cerebellum. This part of the brain may be a target for treating autism through brain stimulation.

Autism affects about one in 68 children, and the condition poses social challenges, including difficulty processing social interactions, such as facial expressions and physical gestures.

New research out of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas shows those social behaviors could be restored through a process called "neuromodulation," or brain stimulation.

Peter Tsai directed the study from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. Researchers stimulated a specific part of the cerebellum in mice to correct social impairments. They learned this particular region near the brain stem that had been thought to have only roles in coordinating movement is also critical for autistic behaviors. 

"I feel like one of the things that makes us uniquely human in some ways is that social ability and that desire to group together and work as communities and as societies," Tsai says. 

If that's impaired -- or if you don't seek it out -- you no longer belong to that community or society and that will create a significant impact on the joy you seek out in life, he says.

Interview Highlights

How autism affects the brain 

There are a lot of different ways that that autism affects the brain, Tsai says.

"Autism is heterogeneous set of diseases. I see kids at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, and if you have 10 kids that come into the clinic, you're going to get 10 different kids with 10 different problems."

Forms of autism vary, he says, but for the most part, there is increased activity in different circuits within the brain.

Credit UT Southwestern Medical Center
MRIs of a human brain and a mouse brain highlight in red a part in the cerebellum that scientists believe can be a new target in treating autism.

On neuromodulation and mice

Using neuromodulation, the researchers were able to demonstrate that they could change brain activity in various different parts of a mouse's brain by stimulating, inhibiting and modulating these particular cerebellar regions. 

"We as biologists joke to ourselves 'Hey, we're just mice without tails.' Obviously, that is way off the mark," Tsai says. "We wanted to know if what we're seeing in the mouse was actually translatable to humans."

The changes made in the brain resulted in changes in the social behavior of the mice.

The next step is to make sure the same technique would be safe to conduct on children.

How science has traditionally regarded the cerebellum

If you search online for information about the cerebellum, the results will say it coordinates motor movements, which has been the understanding for the past century or so, Tsai says. It's what he was taught in his child neurology training.

"I remember seeing a kid during my residency who had a cerebellar injury of some variety, and this kid did not come in with balance problems, he didn't come in with motor problems. He came in and he looked like a kid with autism, and I said, 'This makes no sense at all. How does this compute?' 

"And then I said, 'Well, maybe this is just an exception...' Then, the next kid came in with kind of inflammation of the cerebellum, then other kids came in, and they looked autistic, and I was like 'OK, maybe I shouldn't be ignoring this.'"

Tsai says when you look at studies of autism, "the most consistent finding is cerebellum. There's a cerebellar abnormality in these kids with autism. ... All of these [studies] really highlight the cerebellum as being disrupted in kids and individuals with autism."

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.