A study conducted by the researchers at London’s King’s College has shone a light on the variations in how Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for visual stimuli processing. It revealed that when autistic individuals are given drugs that activate the GABA receptors, their brain can process visual cues like neurotypical individuals. This scientific breakthrough can lead to the development of a new potential intervention for autism.
The study was recently published in Science Translational Medicine and was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre jointly with the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, Clinical Research Associates. The lead authors of the study are Dr Andreia Pereira, PhD, and Dr Qiyun Huang, a Research Associate, at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London.
Autistic individuals experience sensory sensitivities because their brains process sensory information differently than non-autistic individuals. Such sensory overloads can be extremely distressing for some people. GABA, a chemical regulator, is responsible for regulating the nerve cell activity in the central nervous system. Post-mortem and genetic studies indicate that the GABA pathways in the brains of autistic people differ from those of non-autistic people. However, no studies to prove this theory on the living human brain in people with autism have been conducted earlier.
In this study, the activity in parts of the brain that process visual stimuli was recorded using electroencephalogram (EEG) with and without administering Arbaclofen – a drug that switches on the GABA receptors. In non-autistic adults, 30 mg of the drug caused a disruption in visual processing. In autistic individuals, however, it adjusted the visual processing to match that of non-autistic adults at baseline.
Researchers believe that this holds the promise of potential intervention for autism that can ease the sensory sensitivity experienced by autistic people. In a press release about the development, Dr Qiyun Huang, joint author of the study 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 behaviors that rely on this information.” He further explained that 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,” he added.