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TB Drug Could Improve Social Skills in People with Autism


One of the most frustrating characteristics of autism is the individual’s disinterest in or difficulty with social interactions. Researchers have now identified a possible treatment to improve social skills in people with autism, and it involves a drug originally developed to treat TB (tuberculosis).

Poor social skills in autism can be debilitating

Researchers at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) used a specific mouse model (BALB/c) that mimics limited sociability characteristic of autism spectrum disorder to test whether the TB drug, cycloserine, could change social behavior in the mice. Previous research has shown that cycloserine has this potential.

Moving Images of Autism through lifespan

Cycloserine is an antibiotic that is most commonly prescribed to treat TB. It is also used to treat urinary tract infections and other infections that have not responded to treatment.

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Normally, BALB/c mice are antisocial: when presented with other mice they move away and do not interact as normal mice do. This behavior is similar to that of people with autism who commonly avoid social contact and eye contact with others.

When the BALB/c mice were administered cycloserine, they acted as normal mice do when they were placed near other mice. This response led the researchers to suggest that the TB drug could reduce the antisocial behavior of people who have autism, including avoiding eye contact and interacting with others in a social setting, behaviors that place them at a decided disadvantage in society.

Autism spectrum disorder affects 110 children out of 10,000, or roughly one in 91 children in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because the disorder is about four to five times more common among boys than girls, autism affects roughly one in every 58 boys.

Study author Stephen I. Deutsch, MD, PhD, the Ann Robinson Chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at EVMS, noted that “persons with autism spectrum disorders are often painfully aware of their limited sociability, which can lead to profound feelings of sadness and frustration.”

Maria R. Urbano, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, adds that their findings are important because “you might have someone with a 125 or 130 IQ who’s unemployable” because they have poor social skills. Dr. Urbano is already initiating a pilot clinical trial of the TB drug in adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders.

American Academy of Pediatrics
Eastern Virginia Medical School