A leading Hebrew University researcher has proven a causal link between high levels of a chemical found in the brain and autistic behaviour, with the study published Monday in the research journal Advanced Science.
“This research is a significant breakthrough in autism research, with the first direct connection made between an increase in the concentration of nitrous oxide (NO) in the brain and autistic behaviour,” said Dr. Haitham Amal, who heads a research lab at the Drug Research Institute in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Pharmacy within its Faculty of Medicine.
NO is a molecule that regulates the actions of several organs in the body, including the brain.
“Our research showed – in an extraordinary way – that inhibiting the production of NO, specifically in brain neuron cells in mouse models of autism, causes a decrease in autism-like symptoms,” he explained. “They became more ‘social’ and less repetitiveness was observed in their behaviour. Additionally, the animals showed interest in new objects and were less anxious.”
All these are typical symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which affects about one in 36 children according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. It is estimated that overall, approximately 1% of the world’s population has ASD, and it is becoming increasingly prevalent.
More than 30,000 children up to the age of 18 in Israel have been diagnosed as being on the spectrum.
The results from the animal studies were then correlated with stem cells and blood samples taken from autistic children.
“I am hopeful that with our new understanding of the NO mechanism, we can begin to develop therapeutic drugs and help millions of children and adults living with autism around the world,” said the doctor, who was born and studied in Israel through his doctorate and then went to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology for post-doctoral work.
It was there that he first discovered the link between NO and autism. He returned to continue his work in Jerusalem about four years ago.
According to Amal, the findings may also aid research into other serious disorders.
“This discovery can have implications on the relationship of NO with other neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, or psychiatric diseases, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” he said.