The social impairment of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can have a profound impact on quality of life. 

As part of their research, Eastern Virginia Medical School scientists say they have verified that a specific mouse strain, known as the BALB/c mouse, is a valid animal model of the limited sociability seen in persons with Autism.   In the presence of another mouse, BALB/c mice move as far away as possible and do not interact as normal mice do,  they say in much the same way people with autism often avoid making social contact with other people.

This finding gave them a way to test whether an existing medication can alter the function of certain receptors in the brain known to affect sociability and help the animals be more at ease around others. The medication used was D-Cycloserine, originally developed to treat tuberculosis, but previous studies showed that it also might change social behavior. In preliminary studies at Eastern Virginia Medical School, the medication appeared to resolve the Balb/c mouse's deficits of sociability - BALB/c mice treated with the medication behaved as a normal mouse would when placed near another.

The Eastern Virginia Medical School laboratory studies with the Balb/c mouse led its investigators to hypothesize that D-Cycloserine could ease the impaired sociability of persons with autism, such as avoiding eye contact and personal interaction. Those traits can severely limit the possibility of employment and independent living for someone with autism. 

"Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorders are either disinterested in social interactions or find them unpleasant. They often don't understand what other people are thinking or feeling and misinterpret social cues," said Stephen I. Deutsch, MD, PhD, the Ann Robinson Chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "Sadly, persons with autism spectrum disorders are often painfully aware of their limited sociability, which can lead to profound feelings of sadness and frustration."

"What makes this important is you might have someone with a 125 or 130 IQ who's unemployable" because of their social impairments, said Maria R. Urbano, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Urbano is moving this promising research from the laboratory directly to patient care by starting a pilot clinical trial of D-Cycloserine in adolescent and young adult patients with autism spectrum disorders. The trial will show whether the medication, which is already known to be safe for use in humans, has similar effects on the sociability deficits of persons with autism as it did in the mice.  Her research is supported by a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.

Deutsch will discuss the research at Eastern Virginia Medical School's Quarterly Autism Education Series at noon, Dec. 14, in the school's Hofheimer Hall auditorium.