Autism:  Breakthrough from Jerusalem

By Shlomo Maital

  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction, and repetitive or restricted patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities.  It manifests very differently in each person.

   A report by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC)  reveals:  1 in 36 eight-year-olds (2.8%) in the US had autism in 2020 — a jump up from 1 in 44 (2.3%) in 2018.  Autism is more frequent among boys, but the prevalence of autism among girls has increased to over 1%.

   It is not clear why autism has increased in frequency, nor whether it is simply being diagnosed better or whether it is on the rise.

   And sadly, there is no specific medicinal intervention for the treatment of autism.

   Today, the daily Haaretz * reports this:  “Researchers from the Hebrew University have identified a molecular mechanism that may be related to autism – a mechanism that involves the compound nitric oxide…they found that the concentration of this compound in the brain may contribute significantly to the onset of autism.  The findings are based on experiments in laboratory animals and also on human cells.  Identifying the molecular mechanism hypothesized to be involved in autism may aid in efforts to develop treatments for autism.  The study was published (yesterday) in the journal Advanced Science.”

    According to Haaretz, the study was led by Dr. Haitam Amal, a pharmacologist and neuroscientist.  His research began at MIT in 2015 in the lab of Prof. Steven Tannenbaum.  Tannenbaum first discovered, in the 1970’s, that a key neurotransmitter, nitric oxide, NO,  consisting of one atom of oxygen and one atom of nitrogen,  is made in the human body.  In four years of research, Haaretz reports, Amal showed that in mice whose genome had been mutated to cause autism, there is an increase in this molecule, NO.

    In 2002, a key article said this about NO as a neurotransmitter (compound crucial in transmitting electronic signals among the neurons in the brain):

    “The discovery that nitric oxide (NO) functions as a signalling molecule in the nervous system has radically changed the concept of neural communication. Indeed, the adoption of the term nitrergic for nerves whose transmitter function depends on the release of NO or for transmission mechanisms brought about by NO (Moncada et al., 1997) emphasizes the specific characteristics of this mediator.”

    The discovery by Dr. Haitam Amal and his team at the Hebrew U.  of Jerusalem brings hope that perhaps one day, by treating the excess of NO among those on the autism spectrum, this disorder can be treated successfully.

* Gideon Lev. “Israeli researchers discover a molecular mechanism in the brain that is linked to autism.” Haaretz, May 23, 2023, p. 9  (Hebrew).

   See also:

Tripathi, M. K., Kartawy, M., & Amal, H. (2020). The role of nitric oxide in brain disorders: Autism spectrum disorder and other psychiatric, neurological, and neurodegenerative disorders. Redox Biology34, 101567.