Drug that targets brain chemical may help sensory 'sensitivity' in autism

A drug being studied for multiple sclerosis and other conditions have help manage sensory 'sensitivities' seen with autism. Photo by nickelbabe/Pixabay
A drug being studied for multiple sclerosis and other conditions have help manage sensory 'sensitivities' seen with autism. Photo by nickelbabe/Pixabay

Jan. 5 (UPI) -- A drug that targets a specific brain chemical may help people with autism spectrum disorder process visual stimuli like those without the condition, a study published Wednesday by Science Translational Medicine found.

The drug, arbaclofen, which has been studied to treat multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, targets a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, the researchers said.


GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain that regulates the activity of nerve cells in the central nervous system, according to the National Library of Medicine.

By increasing concentrations of GABA, which helps the brain transmit to the nervous system signals used in thinking and stress response, the drug helps people with autism spectrum disorder better respond to their surroundings and process what they see and hear, they 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," study co-author Qiyun Huang said in a press release.

"What we have in 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," said Huang, a research associate at King's College London in England.


Measuring how targeting GABA with the drug changes visual response in people with autism could lead to new treatments for the disorder, he said.

About one in 44 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which affects how they process sensory information, such as what they see and hear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to difficulties with social interactions and communications, these sensory "sensitivities" in response to certain sounds, for example, can be distressing for people with the condition, the agency says.

Earlier research suggests that up to 90% of people with autism spectrum disorder experience sensory sensitivity.

For this study, Huang and his colleagues compared the effects of arbaclofen on GABA processing in 44 adults, 19 of whom had autism spectrum disorder.

The researchers used electroencephalogram recordings from the region of brain that processes vision to measure the activity of the adult brain in response to a series of visual stimuli, both with and without arbaclofen, they said.

At a 30-milligram dose, arbaclofen disrupted visual processing in non-autistic adults, the researchers said.

However, in those with the disorder, the drug adjusted visual processing so that it was more like that of the non-autistic adults, according to the researchers.


This could mean arboclofen may help with the difficult visual symptoms experienced by some people with autism, they said.

"We should investigate arbaclofen's effects on clinically relevant sensory symptoms, which can be very debilitating for some autistic people," study co-author Grainne McAlonan said in a press release.

"Importantly, we have been able to identify which individuals have a brain response to arbaclofen," said McAlonan, professor of translational neuroscience at King's College London.

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