New brain target for potential treatment of social pathology in autism spectrum disorder

February 7, 2017
The olive-size amydala is a key brain structure involved in emotion and social behaviors. Credit: Rosalind Franklin University

Researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science have induced empathy-like behavior by identifying then manipulating a brain circuit in an experimental model, an indication that new strategies may help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gain social abilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children is living with an ASD, the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the U.S., with associated costs estimated at between $12 billion and $61 billion.

ASD can impair empathy, the ability to share and understand the feelings of others, which is aided by the ability to read facial expression, tone of voice and other social cues.

The study, led by Chicago Medical School Professor Amiel Rosenkranz, Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, sheds light on the specific role of the , an often overlooked brain region, in social behavior and its pathology in autism. There are no approved pharmacological approaches that target the social impairments in ASD. The development of new approaches requires a better understanding of the neural changes that cause the main symptoms of ASD. This study is a major step toward that goal.

Published Jan. 23 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the findings change the conceptualization of the brain regions important in empathy and provide the rationale to target the amygdala in certain forms of ASD.

Investigators measured the empathy-like responses of a rodent while witnessing an "actor" rodent respond to a mild "startle." The "witness" quickly developed behaviors that matched the startled subject, reflecting a behavior that is a foundation for empathy. In addition, the witness learned that the emotional cues produced by the actor indicate that something in the environment may be dangerous. However, when parts of the amygdala were shut down, the witness did not show empathy-like responses toward the other. Specifically, the medial amygdala was required for the witness to display empathy, while a circuit from the lateral nucleus of the amygdala to the medial (LA-MeA) was required to learn that the behavior of the actor signaled danger in the environment.

To gain insight into the relevance of these findings for ASD, the study then examined impaired empathy caused by experimental deletion of Nrxn1, an analog of a human autism-associated gene (NRXN). Deletion of Nrxn1 was associated with a lack of empathy-like behavior in the witness, which investigators found to be correlated with poor neuronal function in the LA-MeA circuit. Switching on the LA-MeA circuit in the non-empathic led to the emergence of empathic behaviors. The findings identify a specific anatomy in the amygdala that may underlie and demonstrate a particular pathology in the amygdala that may induce social difficulties caused by autism-related mutations.

Explore further: A common medication restores social deficits in autism mouse model

More information: Robert C Twining et al, An intra-amygdala circuit specifically regulates social fear learning, Nature Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nn.4481

Related Stories

Doctors need to develop broader skill of empathy

December 6, 2016

Developing a broader skill of empathy is a more realistic goal for medical students and doctors than urging them to be more compassionate. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr David Jeffrey, an honorary ...

Study suggests fresh approach to autism research

January 18, 2016

The more expressive people are, the better they are at understanding the feelings of others according to a study by researchers at The University of Aberdeen published in Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Scientists discover clues to altered brain wiring in autism

November 15, 2016

Autism is an agonizing puzzle, a complex mixture of genetic and environmental factors. One piece of this puzzle that has emerged in recent years is a biochemical cascade called the mTOR pathway that regulates growth in the ...

Empathy with strangers can be learned

December 21, 2015

We can learn to empathize with strangers. Surprisingly positive experiences with people from another group trigger a learning effect in the brain, which increases empathy. As researchers from the University of Zurich reveal, ...

Emotional brains 'physically different' to rational ones

June 18, 2015

Researchers at Monash University have found physical differences in the brains of people who respond emotionally to others' feelings, compared to those who respond more rationally, in a study published in the journal NeuroImage.

Recommended for you

Training changes the way the brain pays attention

June 27, 2017

Behavioral training changes the way attention facilitates information processing in the human brain, a study publishing on June 27 in the open access journal PLOS Biology led by Sirawaj Itthipuripat, at University of California ...

Researchers find brain region that affects drug use habits

June 27, 2017

The human brain is nimble. It can reorganize itself to learn new things, catalog memories, and even break old habits. So, what if our brains could be taught to suppress cravings, especially the destructive impulse to use ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.