Scientists ‘switch off’ autism with $3 pill

Scientists have made an exciting discovery: a medication for epilepsy costing only $3 per pill can possibly “switch off” autism symptoms in mice, as stated in a study published Tuesday in Molecular Psychiatry journal.

Autism spectrum disorder, affecting an estimated 5.4 million adults and one in 44 children in the United States, is a complex neurological condition that can lead to abnormalities such as epilepsy or hyperactivity.

A team from Germany’s Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research found that lamotrigine, an anti-seizure drug approved in 1994, can reduce the behavioral and social issues linked to the disorder.

This breakthrough is seen as possibly the closest thing yet to a possible cure for humans. Lead researcher Moritz Mall stated that the drug appears to be able to alleviate brain cell dysfunction and counteract the behavioral issues seen in autism even after the absence of MYT1L has already affected brain development.

Lamotrigine, found under the brand name Lamictal, is used to treat epilepsy and stabilize mood in bipolar disorder. It works by reversing changes to brain cells caused by a mutation in the MYT1L gene. This gene encodes for a protein which is important for setting which genes are active or inactive in the cell, as well as for keeping the identity of a nerve cell. Mutations of the gene have been linked to neurological diseases and malformations of the brain.

To test how the gene affects autism symptoms, the researchers inactivated MYT1L in mice and human neurons. This resulted in hyperactivation in the cells and behavioral changes in the mice, such as hyperactivity and social deficits. Remarkably, lamotrigine was able to normalize the electrophysiological activity of the cells and curb the ASD-associated behaviors in the mice.

Because of the increasing number of autism diagnoses, especially in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, clinical trials for lamotrigine’s effect on MYT1L in humans are being planned. Although so far the research has only been conducted on mice, the results are promising.