A core symptom of autism involves impaired social relationships. One reason for this may be that individuals with autism do not experience the typical rewarding aspects of social interactions. Specific brain areas are critical for experiencing such social pleasures and specific brain chemicals may be important for promoting social interactions.
Robert Malenka and his colleagues at Stanford University in California plan to explore the possibility that the brain circuits that mediate the rewarding aspects of social interactions do not function normally in individuals with autism. They also aim to explore the effect of specific brain chemicals, including oxytocin, on particular brain circuits. Oxytocin is thought to be important for social behavior.
The researchers plan to perform sophisticated behavioral assays in mice that have been genetically modified to have some of the same genetic abnormalities that cause autism in certain individuals. They plan to use state-of-the-art approaches to examine and manipulate the activity of specific cells in the key brain circuits of these mice in order to determine whether they function the same way as those of normal mice.
Malenka and his group also hope to explore the behavioral effects of the drug MDMA in the mouse models of autism. MDMA may cause the release of oxytocin as well as influence the action of other key brain chemicals in a potentially therapeutic manner. The results of this project may explain whether key circuits in the brain function abnormally in autism. They could also provide important clues about how to correct these deficits so that we can develop better therapies to improve some of the most devastating symptoms of autism.