UC Davis Scientists Exploring Link Between Autism, Syndrome Found In Newborn Horses

DAVIS (CBS13) — Scientists at UC Davis have started a groundbreaking new study into a possible link between a syndrome found in newborn horses and autism in children.

Nine-day-old Ivy is acting like a foal should, but that wasn’t the case shortly after she was born.

“We could pull her away from the mare and she would be not really seeking for the mare,” said UC Davis vet Dr. Monica Aleman. “That’s not normal. A normal foal should get up, go and nurse, play like a foal, but always be attached to the mare.”

Ivy had what’s called maladjustment syndrome. It’s detachment from the mother, not knowing how to suckle or even lay down on its own.

It was long thought the condition was caused by oxygen deprivation during birth, but Aleman and Dr. John Madigan now think it’s something else.

“We started measuring some of the hormones that keep the foal asleep in utero, so they don’t gallop around,” Madigan said. “We found they’re significantly elevated in these foals that wander around that are maladjusted.”

Many maladjusted foals are born via Cesarean section or have faster than normal births. The doctors think the babies may have needed that 20 to 30 minutes of getting squeezed in the birth canal.

Aleman and Madigan recently experimented and found they can get maladjusted foals to “wake up” by mimicking the squeeze with a rope harness.

“We’ve done about 12 now, where we’ve had the same response,” Madigan said. “Now it’s our job as scientists to do clinical studies and randomize it.”

Taking it a step further, the doctors noticed the detachment in maladjusted foals is similar to that in children with autism. They took their findings about the hormones, which are called neurosteroids, to toxicologist Dr. Isaac Pessah.

“They came to me and showed me the videos and said, ‘You know we think we have a link to neurosteroids. Is this at all relevant to autism?’ and that got my attention,” he said.

One overseas study has linked the hormones to autism in children.

“We want to see if what we find in the foal maps on to the children we have in our epidemiological studies for which we’ve already collected samples,” he said.

All the UC Davis research is in the beginning stages, and the researchers are careful about making leaps of faith.

But no doubt, scientists with human and animal interests will be awaiting the results.

More from Marianne McClary
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