The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $900,000 grant to support one of the first basic-science studies exploring the observation that, in some people, fever eases the symptoms of autism.
The study follow up on the growing number of reports from parents who describe how the onset of fever – for instance during a cold – improves sociability and communication in children who have autism.
"Like many research topics, the phenomenon isn't totally unknown, but exact mechanisms linking body temperature and autism haven't yet been organized as a principle and unpacked to see how it could work," says senior investigator Jeffrey Alberts. Dr. Alberts heads a developmental psychobiology laboratory at Indiana University. His research associate Christopher Harshaw will lead the study.
Their team will examine two types of mice: those with genetic mutations that lead to autism-like social dysfunction and those whose ability to generate heat and regulate body temperature has been impaired. This will enable them to look at the basic biology linking temperature regulation to social behavior.
In the mice with autism-like symptoms, the IU scientists will examine the ability to maintain proper body temperature. In the mice with poor heat regulation, they will study social development from infancy to adulthood.
"We're predicting these two types of mice are going to intersect; that the inability to produce heat is going to affect individuals' social behavior, as well as affect their interactions with their mother and alter the dynamics of the group," Dr. Alberts says. "By the same token, in those with impaired social behavior, we expect to find problems maintaining body temperature."
The investigators will also compare the behavior and biology of both types of mice to a control group of mice with normal social and heat-regulating abilities.
Based on the reports from parents about fever and autism, the IU scientists predict that their research findings will produce important information to guide future studies enrolling people who have autism.
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