SAN ANTONIO -- New figures from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show autism is on the rise, affecting one in 88 children born. It s a growing health problem.

Scientists in San Antonio are using an animal model to help find answers to this mysterious condition.

Genetically engineered mice may help open the door to future autism treatments. The lab animals are bred with one minuscule change: a tiny mutation that alters the way serotonin is transported in the brain. Serotonin is a brain chemical important in controlling mood.

You can think about these just very small changes have a big effect on how the brain develops and how the cognitive abilities and behavior are affected by this, said Brent Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

The animals show autistic behaviors. They aresocially impaired and don't interact with their fellow animals normally.

But it s what s going on inside their brains that have scientists interested. In the Neurotransmitter Transporter Lab at UTHSC, researchers insert a tiny probe into the brains of anesthetized mice, measuring electrical activity.

And what we found was the serotonin transporter was revved up, if you like, said UTHSC physiology researcher Lynette Daws. It was working much, much faster than in a normal control mouse.

That means less serotonin was circulating in the brain. The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The mouse autism model is a starting point for studying complex brain chemical interactions.

If we can find a way to slow down the activity of the serotonin transporter, particularly during these early critical stages of development, then we may be able to head off autism or lessen the severity of autistic symptoms, Daws said.

Scientists say having an autism mouse model is exciting. It could lead to the development of novel treatments.

That is potentially good news for thousands of parents and their children.

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