Autism has, since its discovery, confounded doctors and psychologists. But a breakthrough by Harvard, just announced, might be the beginning of a long road to understanding autism and, ultimately, better care.
Autism is often described as the brain lacking a filter; everything comes in at once and, clearly, this can be overwhelming. That led Harvard researchers to look at “inhibitory neurotransmitters,” chemicals the brain uses to regulate the input you receive, and they may have found a key one in the advance of autism, GABA.
It’s probably best known to most of us as one of those chemicals bodybuilders talk about, but GABA’s main purpose is sort of a traffic cop for your brain; it allows ions to flow into or out of cells, but only one or the other. It also may be crucial to the brain as children grow, although that’s somewhat controversial. The Harvard team recruited autistic people and a control group and tested their GABA channels, and, sure enough, when tested, the autistic group had a breakdown in how their GABA channels functioned.
This is just one piece of the puzzle; not even the research team is convinced that autism is tied to one neurotransmitter, and peer review will need to be done to ensure there isn’t more at work here. Similarly, this may be a symptom of autism, not a cause; more testing will need to be done, and work on restoring GABA channels is in its infancy at best. But we’ve never found a neurotransmitter involved in autism before, and this is a major breakthrough in the sense that, symptom or cause, we’re beginning to understand a formerly impenetrable disease.