Senior author Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said both disorders have symptoms of social impairment and originate during brain development in utero.
The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found male offspring of rat mothers who were given alcohol during pregnancy had social impairment and altered levels of autism-related genes found in humans. Female offspring were not affected.
However, Redei and colleagues found the alcohol damage could be reversed. A low dose of the thyroid hormone thyroxin given to the alcohol consuming rat mothers at critical times during their pregnancy alleviated social impairments and reversed the expression of autism-related genes in their male offspring, Redei said.
"The beneficial effects of thyroxin in this animal model raises an exciting question -- whether novel drug targets and treatments could be developed for both these disorders," Redei said in a statement.
"Human studies are needed to establish that the parallel we saw in the animal model exists in these diseases."
The study did not mean alcohol consumed by mothers is the cause of autism, Redei emphasized.
"The novel finding here is that these two disorders share molecular vulnerabilities and if we understand those we are closer to finding treatments," Redei said.