Otago research could help autism treatment

Ian McLennan
Ian McLennan
University of Otago research is shedding new light on autism and could help lead the way to eventual new therapies.

Prof Ian McLennan, of the university anatomy department, is a world leader in some aspects of research involving brain-linked sex hormones, including Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH).

He discussed some of his findings in one of several talks on neurological conditions and their treatment and care given at the Otago Museum's Hutton Theatre yesterday, during Brain Awareness Week.

He is a member of the Brain Health Research Centre, which is organising most of the awareness activities with the museum.

In the past, science had understood very little about how the human brain developed, but brain scans and other research were now providing more insights, Prof McLennan said.

Many more males than females developed autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and this disorder was often associated with ''very, very rapid brain growth in the first year of life''.

The hormone AMH was expressed in young boys, and could be responsible for slowing male development by about 9 months by the age of 6, compared with girls. AMH was not expressed in girls until they reached puberty, he said.

If AMH slowed male development, boys with low levels of that hormone could develop more quickly and be at greater risk of developing autism, he said.

Otago researchers, including Prof McLennan, were part of international efforts to piece together the jigsaw puzzle involved in learning more about autism and other neurological conditions. More than 10,000 scientific articles had already been written about aspects of testosterone but little had been published about AMH and another sex hormone, Inhibin B, both of which were linked to the severity of symptoms in boys with ASD, he said.

Under those circumstances, he warned it would be at least 10 years before any AMH-related therapy could become available for clinical use.