Newborn horse study may provide link to the causes of autism

Davis, CA – A recent study at UC Davis could provide insight into the learning difference of autism. The study, conducted by John Madigan, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM,ACAW, whose also a university professor and equine expert, along with Isaac Pessah, MS, PhD, a professor of molecular biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a faculty member of the UC Davis MIND Institute, researched Maladjusted Foal Syndrome (MFS).

MFS affects foals by making it harder for them to bond with the mare and leaves them no interest in feeding. While the syndrome occurs in only 3%-5% of births and 80% of afflicted foals recover, it often requires round-the-clock care that is expensive to provide. MFS caught the attention of Pessah who noted that it had similarities with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pessah told The Horse, an online guide to equine health care,

“There are thousands of potential causes for autism, but the one thing that all autistic children have in common is that they are detached.”

Madigan and UC Davis veterinary neurologist Monica Aleman, MVZ, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM looked into what causes MFS and found something interesting. Unlike humans, a foal never moves in the womb. In fact, foal movement during pregnancy is cause for for concern. This is due to the neurosteroids that help with the mares pregnancy and essentially calms the fetal foal.

During the birth, the pressure from the birthing canal usually causes the foal’s body to stop producing the neurosteroids so it can properly “wake up” or in a small sense, “boot up.” However, if the foal was birthed too fast or had to be birthed by a c-section, they don’t get the adequate pressure they need to start waking up. This leaves them unable to bond with their mare and no desire to feed.

To test this theory Madigan developed the Madigan Foal Squeeze Procedure during which a rope is placed around the foals body to mimic the pressure of the birth canal. The rope is held for twenty minutes while the foal appears asleep. When the rope is released, the foal bounds up and runs to their mother to feed.

Researchers also administered the neurosteroid, allopregnanolone to foals and found that it’s presence in the bloodstream can bring on MFS. Once out of the foals system the syndrome disappears.

Madigan cautions that while his technique worked in the recent study, a larger one needs to be conducted.

A newly formed group, Comparative Neurology Research Group, made up of veterinarians, physicians, epidemiologists, and basic-science researchers is hashing out MFS and it’s links to autism, of which Pessah still finds many and adds.

“The concept that a disruption in the transition of fetal consciousness may be related to children with autism is intriguing.”

Source: The Horse.com website: Newborn Foals Could Offer Clues About Autism

Contributed by Audrey L. Hollingshead