European researchers have hinted it might be possible to reverse some of the brain changes in autism.

Scientists involved in the EU-AIMS (European Autism Interventions - A Multicentre Study for Developing New Medications) project have been investigating the neuroligin-3 gene, which has been linked with inherited cases of autism. Mice that are missing the neuroligin-3 gene have overactive glutamate receptors and this causes problems with learning and brain development.

However, by encouraging changes in the mice, the scientists discovered that when the glutamate receptors produce normal levels of neuroligin-3, activity returned to healthy levels and, more significantly, the autism-like changes in the mouse brains returned to normal.

Finding treatments for ASD

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect about 1 in 100 children, but still has no effective drug treatments. In EU-AIMS, teams of researchers from universities and industry, led by Roche and King's College London, along with patient groups, are working together to find out more about the causes of ASD and new tests for the condition and identify potential drugs.

Professor Declan G Murphy, The Mortimer D Sackler Professor of Translational Neurodevelopment and head of the Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, King's College London, is the academic lead for the project. He said: “We have used mouse models to identify new drug targets, providing new mechanisms for the disease that we didn't know a year ago. It's early days yet but if we can find the same abnormalities in humans, and can reverse them in the same way that we have reversed them in mice, we could slow the development of the disease and make it more manageable, or even prevent it completely.

“We have also demonstrated proof of concept that abnormal brain activity in adults with autism can be reversed by modulating brain serotonin. We now want to see if we can translate those findings to the clinic.”

In addition, EU-AIMS will work on the two largest ever clinical studies of ASD. The first study will look at the risk of autism in a younger sibling of a child with autism, while the second will track how symptoms change with age. These will involve about 1,000 patients and will kick off in 2014.

Project coordinator, Will Spooren, who is also head behavioural pharmacology and preclinical imaging at Hoffmann-La Roche, explained: “We don't yet know the natural course of autism, as the symptoms differ at different ages. These studies will help us understand risk factors and learn about the needs of people and their families at different stages.”