Harvard May Have Found a Specific Neurotransmitter Linked with Autism

The discovery may help researchers better understand and eventually develop treatments for the disease.


GABA model via Shutterstock

For the first time, scientists have found a chemical in the brain that may be linked to autism.

The discovery comes out of Harvard University, where a team of researchers had subjects complete a visual test that causes various regions of the brain to react differently to stimuli. Using brain imaging to measure those reactions, the Harvard team found that reactions associated with parts of the brain that cause autistic behavior may be related to having low levels of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that distributes chemicals throughout the brain.

Suspicions that GABA may play a role in autism are not new, but proof has been difficult to come by. “This is the first time, in humans, that a neurotransmitter in the brain has been linked to autistic behavior — full stop,” lead researcher Caroline Robertson told the Harvard Gazette. “This theory that the GABA signaling pathway plays a role in autism has been shown in animal models, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans.”

Robertson was quick to point out that the findings about GABA do not mean that autism can now be treated—it’s just a piece of the puzzle—but the discovery may help researchers better understand the notoriously elusive disease, which could eventually lead to better diagnosis and therapy.

Beyond that, the visual test the team used in the study may also be a good diagnostic tool, especially for young children, who have historically been difficult to diagnose since they cannot yet speak. Using brain imaging could circumvent those verbal obstacles.

Robertson told the Gazette that the GABA discovery may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to neurotransmitters’ roles in autism:

“I’m excited about this study, but there are many other molecules in the brain, and many of them may be associated with autism in some form,” she said. “We were looking at the GABA story, but we’re not done screening the autistic brain for other possible pathways that may play a role. But this is one, and we feel good about this one.”