The development of safe and effective new treatments for social impairments in autism is an important priority. Oxytocin and noninvasive brain stimulation hold great promise as potential therapies for social deficits in autism. The safety, effectiveness and basis of these new therapies remain poorly understood.
Complex social processes that are a challenge for people with autism — such as attending to others, learning from others’ experiences and sharing with others — are difficult to model in standard experimental animals such as rats or mice. Rats and mice also lack certain brain areas that appear to be uniquely specialized for complex social behavior in people.
Rhesus monkeys provide a powerful alternative for measuring the safety, effectiveness and basis of both oxytocin and brain stimulation therapy. These animals have complex social behaviors remarkably similar to those of people. These behaviors appear to depend on the same specialized brain areas — specifically the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and anterior cingulate gyrus (ACCg) — as in people.
Michael Platt and his group plan to test the effectiveness, safety and basis of both transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a noninvasive form of brain stimulation — and inhaled oxytocin as therapies for impaired social function in autism. They aim to test how TMS and oxytocin affect social anxiety, social learning and empathy in rhesus monkeys. They also hope to measure how these potential therapies change cell activity in brain areas specialized for complex social behavior. Finally, they plan to look for changes in brain structure and biomarkers of physical health to assess the long-term safety of these potential therapies.