For years, study on autism has been centered around the analysis of genetics, medicine, and vaccinations. All are theoretic and unconfirmed thus far. A new study might be a possible groundbreaking theory, however. A missing element in the natural course of birth may contribute to autism.
As McClatchy DC imparts on a study out of Sacramento, California, baby horses -- known as "foals" -- are giving scientists some insight. According to the report, researchers are interested in what they learned from Davis veterinarian at University of California, John Madigan; he's also a veterinary professor and specialist in equine comparative neurology.
Madigan works with foals that are born showing a lack of interest in its mother and refusing to nurse. This affects roughly 5 percent of foals born. Madigan's technique is said to be like "kangaroo care," which is used on infants born prematurely.
Stanford University Professor of Pediatrics David Stevenson calls Madigan's observation "interesting and dramatic" and can see a link that may give researchers more information on how autism originates.
These types of foals are born with "neonatal maladjustment syndrome," also known NMS; the baby horses are "emotionally detached" from their moms. It was a syndrome discovered in the 1950s.
Anytime foals at Victory Rose Thoroughbreds in Vacaville are born showing a distinct indifference to their mothers, farm owner Ellen Jackson calls on Madigan to intervene.
"When these horses are born, they will walk to a corner and just stand there," Jackson says.
So, what does Madigan do when he arrives to make everything better? He solves the problem with a technique called "the squeeze." He ties a soft rope harness around the foal's entire body and "gently squeezes it to increase pressure." The foal will then lay down and fall asleep as the pressure is maintained. After several minutes, the animal awakens and shows interest in its mother. It also wants to feed, and all signs of the foal's prior behavior is diminished.
"The Squeeze" has worked every single time Madigan has performed it. Victory Rose Thoroughbreds have had 12 foals born with NMS and it's been cured with this fascinating technique.
This phenomenon is making Madigan and other researchers wonder if there's a direct connection to "the squeeze" and "high levels of neurosteroids in the blood and later development of autism," the reports says.
Foals that didn't interact with their mothers right away with the NMS condition consistently had higher levels of neurosteroids in their blood system. Foals that naturally bonded with their mothers after being born had normal levels of the hormone.
As defined, neurosteroids are "brain steroids that can cross the blood-brain barrier and dampen the central nervous system."
This is where it gets more into the factors known about autism, such as detached behaviors and symptoms linked with Autism Spectral Disorder (ASD). Madigan thinks there's something to the study about specific birth stages an infant experiences which may later result in autism because he points out that the "behavioral abnormalities in these foals seem to resemble some of the symptoms in children with autism."
To sum up what Madigan is describing in the report, neurosteroids at high levels in foals before birth are meant to protect its mother. It keeps the unborn foal at minimal activity inside the womb so it sleeps and doesn't try extreme physical activity -- like running. Something like that would be harmful to the mother. Madigan says the foals he's seen with NMS passed through the birth canal quickly. A certain amount of pressure is required in the birth canal to level out the neurosteroids so that the foal will transition into an emotionally and physically active horse.
Madigan led a research in 2011 on healthy foals administered higher levels of neurosteroids. In all cases, the foals started detaching from their mothers and weren't displayed a lack of stimuli.
So, the research may narrow down to autism and the child's birth as either premature infants or delivered via cesarean section. Both methods of birth lack pressure in the birth canal necessary to tell the body to lower neurosteroid levels. Premature babies are at higher risk for autism, as three studies have shown. Infants who weighed less than 3 pounds were considered three times more likely to develop ASD, NCBI reported on a Finnish study in 2012 published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
More on this report about "the squeeze" and further study on "kangaroo care" can be read here. Madigan and Stevenson are applying for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for $100,000 to research more on neurosteroids and its correlation to autism.
[Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images]