Brain Stimulation Studied as Possible Therapy for Autism

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A recent study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s O’Donnell Brain Institute has identified a possible avenue of treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder, commonly known as autism. By stimulating a specific region of the brain’s cerebellum, the study suggests that social functions can be changed.

The study focused on stimulating the part of the brain that is usually only considered to control movement and coordination. Peter Tsai, lead researcher and assistant professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics at UT Southwestern, said neuromodulation, or the alteration of nerve activity in the brain via stimuli, could change an autistic child’s daily life.

Boy with autism. Credit: Scott Vaughan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-2.0

“This is potentially quite a powerful finding,” Tsai said in a press release. “From a therapeutic standpoint, this part of the cerebellum is an enticing target. And although neuromodulation would not cure the underlying genetic cause of a person’s autism, improving social deficits in children with autism could make a huge impact on their quality of life.”

Stimulating the cerebellum is an easier option than attempting to access circuits hidden deeper within the brain’s folds that are considered to be related to autism. The study used mice to demonstrate how stimulating the cerebellum, a part of the brain that has been suggested as an area of interest in previous studies concerning autism, was able to amend social deficiencies for the animals.

“This area of the brain has not received the attention it deserves in regards to understanding autism,” Tsai said.

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The study showed that both humans and mice have the same connections between different parts of the brain via brain imaging, and even showed how the connections are interrupted with both mice and autistic children. Tsai said some of the study’s limited effects could have had to do with needing to involve more parts of the cerebellum or to the restricted amount of time that some behaviors can be corrected.

“Our findings have prompted new thoughts on how the cerebellum may be involved in autism and most importantly suggest that the cerebellum could be a therapeutic target for treatment,” he said.

One in 68 children in the U.S. are affected by autism, which is often characterized by challenges with social interaction and communication as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Neuromodulation has been used to treat conditions such as schizophrenia, but has not previously been studied in children with autism.

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.