Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago have successfully induced empathy-like behavior in an experimental rodent model by manipulating a brain circuit as a new treatment for autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
ASD, one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States, can impair a person's ability to show empathy. There are currently no specific pharmacological therapies that target social impairments in ASD.
The study was led by Chicago Medical School Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology Professor Amiel Rosenkranz and shows the role the amygdala has on autism. The amygdala is a region of the brain related to social behavior.
Researchers studied empathy-like responses in a rodent while observing an "actor" rodent response to a mild "startle." The witness rodent developed behaviors that matched the startled rodent, which showed an empathy-like response. The witness rodent learned to recognize emotional cues to indicate that something in the environment may be dangerous.
The study found that when parts of the amygdala were shut down, the witness rodent was unable to show empathy-like responses toward the actor rodent. This led researchers to determine that the amygdala was necessary for empathy.
Researchers also found that impaired empathy in ASD is caused by the deletion of Nrxn1, an analog of an autism gene NRXN. Deletion of Nrxn1 was linked to poor neuronal function in the LA-MeA circuit. Switching the LA-MeA circuit led to empathic behaviors in the rodent.
The research could lead to targeted treatment for social behaviors in ASD.
The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.