role of serotonin

SAN ANTONIO -- Autism is a developmental psychiatric disorder that remains a mystery. Now, some San Antonio scientists are conducting studies that show the brain chemical serotonin may play a role in many cases of autism.

In a lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center, mice are the important animal models serving as tools for trolling the mysteries of the human mind.


“These mice are inbred strains of mice,” explained Georgianna Gould, Ph.D., a UTHSC neuroscience researcher. “And the behavior that they have is reminiscent of autism. But we can’t say that the mouse has autism.”


The mouse model mimics some important autism traits. For example, control mice might groom once an hour. The inbred mice show repetitive tendencies, performing the ritual six times as often. In an experiment, the animals with autistic tendencies will bury more shiny marbles in the cage. And when placed in a social interaction chamber, will tend to ignore other mice.


“The mouse will spend less time in the chamber that has a stranger mouse confined in a little cage, and more time grooming itself and exploring the rest of the chamber,” Gould observed.


Gould and her colleagues are studying the role the brain chemical serotonin plays in autism.


Images from the mouse brains show differences in receptors for this important “feel good” brain messenger.


“In about 20% to 40% of autism cases, people have signs that the serotonin system is dysfunctional,” Gould said.


In a recent paper in the Journal of Neurochemistry, Gould showed an anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication improved social behavior in mice.


While helping children with autism may not be as simple of boosting serotonin, this new information may be a starting point for future interventions.


“There’s got to be some better way to treat people pharmacologically that may improve their chances of having a normal job, a normal life,” stated Gould.


Autism impacts an estimated one in 100 children in the U.S. to varying degrees. Scientists think it’s a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors that creates the problem.