Harvard and MIT researchers say they have found a link between autism and a neurotransmitter GABA. The new findings come after a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, showing how autism risks may be doubled for children born to mothers on antidepressants during later stages of pregnancy.

According to the Dec. 17 new study published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, a reduced action of neurotransmitter GABA, responsible for dampening cellular activity in the brain, has a direct link to autistic behaviour. As per the researchers, the results can lead to potential treatments for autism as it is possible to come up with drugs that can increase concentration of this brain chemical GABA.

According to U.S. News, autistic behaviour is associated with the breakdown in the signalling pathway. This pathway has been found to be used by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

“This theory -- that the GABA signaling pathway plays a role in autism -- has been shown in animal models, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans,” said study leader Caroline Robertson in the press release.

Until now, experts had suspected GABA to be a factor in autism though no one had found any proof. Robertson’s team used a visual test and brain imaging for the research. The visual test triggers different reactions in the brains of people with autism and those without the problem. Researchers feel that such kind of tests might also prove to be successful in case of children with autism.

“Individuals with autism are known to have detail-oriented visual perception — exhibiting remarkable attention to small details in the sensory environment and difficulty filtering out or suppressing irrelevant sensory information,” Robertson says, reports Medical Daily.

Chief science officer for the Autism Science Foundation, Alycia Halladay described the findings by Robertson’s team as “extraordinary claims.” She said if the theory holds true in other independent studies, it can lead to new methods of helping people with autism spectrum disorder.

Dr. Matthew Lorber who directs child and adolescent psychiatry at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital said that although the origins of autism still remain elusive, the new study will motivate further research.

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