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Xanax May Stabilize Autistic Brains

Update Date: Mar 19, 2014 07:04 PM EDT

Drugs used to treat anxiety may help treat autism, according to a new study.

A new study on mice reveals that autism is characterized by reduced activity of inhibitory neurons and increased activity of excitatory neurons in the brain. However, low doses of benzodiazepine drugs currently used to treat anxiety and epileptic seizures seem to help restore balance in autistic brains.

"These are very exciting results because they suggest that existing drugs-called benzodiazepines-might be useful in treatment of the core deficits in autism," senior author Dr. William Catterall of the University of Washington, in Seattle, said in a news release.

Furthermore, researchers also discovered that reducing the effectiveness of inhibitory neurons in normal mice also triggered some autism-related deficits in social behavior. Researchers said the latest findings are important because classical benzodiazepine drugs have the opposite effect, and increases the activity of inhibitory neurons and diminishing autistic behaviors.

"Our results provide strong evidence that increasing inhibitory neurotransmission is an effective approach to improvement of social interactions, repetitive behaviors, and cognitive deficits in a well-established animal model of autism, having some similar behavioral features as human autism," said Catterall.

Previous research on autism has mostly focused on reducing the activity of excitatory neurons. However, the latest study suggests that boosting the activity of opposing, inhibitory neurons could be an alternative strategy to treating autism.

The findings are published in the journal Neuron.

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