UNDER STRICT EMBARGO UNTIL WEDNESDAY 5 JANUARY 2022, 7PM UK TIME / 2PM EST
New study demonstrates link between brain chemical and visual processing in autism
Researchers from King’s College London have shown that there are variations in how a brain chemical called GABA regulates the processing of visual stimuli. The study showed that when autistic people are given a drug that activates GABA targets, their visual processing becomes more like that of non-autistic people.
Published in Science Translational Medicine, this research has defined a novel way to identify potential new interventions which may be useful in autism, and how to measure individual responses.
The study was part funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre.
Autistic people process sensory information differently from people who are not autistic. These differences may contribute to the sensory sensitivities which can be distressing for some autistic people. Before this study little was known about the brain basis of visual processing differences observed in autistic people.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a chemical messenger in the brain that regulates the activity of nerve cells in the central nervous system. Genetic and post-mortem research has indicated that there are differences in parts of the GABA pathway between autistic and non-autistic people, but no-one has directly tested the theory that there are differences in how the GABA system functions in the living human brain in autistic people.
The study used electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings from the region of brain which processes vision to measure the activity of the adult brain in response to a series of visual stimuli with high and low contrast. The responses were captured with and without a drug called arbaclofen - which switches on GABA type B receptors. 30mg of arbaclofen disrupted visual processing in non-autistic adults; whereas 30mg of arbaclofen adjusted visual processing in autistic adults so it was more like that of the non-autistic group at baseline. According to researchers, this could mean arboclofen could potentially help with the difficult visual symptoms experienced by some people with autism.
Joint first authors were Dr Andreia Pereira, who recently completed her PhD and Dr Qiyun Huang, a Research Associate, at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London. Dr Huang said: “We have known for some time that the GABA pathways in the brain might play a role in the way autistic people process visual information and the behaviours that rely on this information. What we have in this study is the first direct evidence that a specific visual response in the human brain is regulated by GABA, but quite differently in neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals. By measuring how this visual response is changed, we can potentially identify promising new interventions.”
Senior and Corresponding author Grainne McAlonan, Professor of Translational Neuroscience at IoPPN and theme lead for Child and Neurodevelopment Disorders at the NIHR Maudsley BRC said: “Our approach pioneers a new way to assess whether there is a difference in the function of brain chemical pathways responsible for processing sensory information in autism, and whether those pathways can be altered. This work may help us screen potential interventions which might be useful in autism before embarking on expensive large-scale clinical trials. It also suggests that we should investigate arbaclofen’s effects on clinically relevant sensory symptoms which can be very debilitating for some autistic people. Importantly, we have been able to identify which individuals have a brain response to arbaclofen, and this may also help us avoid including people in clinical trials who are unlikely to respond to the medication being tested. The over-arching goal is to increase choices for autistic people and to better tailor interventions to those most likely to benefit.”
Joint senior author Declan Murphy, Professor of Translational Neurodevelopment at IoPPN said: “This is an excellent example of neuroscience research providing new insights which could improve future clinical trials in autism. Later stage clinical trials that have tested new medicines in large numbers of autistic people have so far been unsuccessful, because participants have diverse difficulties and biology. Better understanding of brain chemistry in neurodiverse individuals could help provide a more personalised and effective way to assess new therapeutic options.”
The project was funded by the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, Clinical Research Associates (an affiliate of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative) and the NIHR Maudsley BRC. This work has received support from the EU/EFPIA/SFARI/Autistica/AUTISM SPEAKS Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking (AIMS-2-TRIALS grant n° 777394. Any views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the funders.
‘GABA receptor modulation of visual sensory processing in adults with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder’ was published in Science Translational Medicine. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abg7859
After the embargo has lifted it will be available here:www.science.org/doi/10.1126/scitranslmed.abg7859
For more information please contact
- Franca Davenport, Communications and Engagement Manager, NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ryan Jewell, communications and Engagement Officer, NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, email@example.com
Notes to editors
The paper is under strict embargo until Wednesday 5 January 2022 14:00 EST 19:00 UK time
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About King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience
King's College London is one of the top 35 UK universities in the world and one of the top 10 in Europe (QS World University Rankings, 2020/21) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 31,000 students (including more than 12,800 postgraduates) from some 150 countries worldwide, and 8,500 staff. King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s is the premier centre for mental health and related neurosciences research in Europe. It produces more highly cited outputs (top 1% citations) on mental health than any other centre (SciVal 2019) and on this metric we have risen from 16th (2014) to 4th (2019) in the world for highly cited neuroscience outputs. World-leading research from the IoPPN has made, and continues to make, an impact on how we understand, prevent and treat mental illness and other conditions that affect the brain.
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)
The mission of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:
- Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
- Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;
- Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;
- Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;
- Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
- Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.
NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.
Science Translational Medicine
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GABA receptor modulation of visual sensory processing in adults with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder
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