Summary: Researchers report exposure to a compound used to treat seizures and migraine can cause characteristics associated with autism.

Source: Oregon State University.

Exposure to a compound used to treat migraines and seizures causes characteristics associated with autism, groundbreaking research with zebrafish has demonstrated.

The study conducted by Oregon State University and Wenzhou Medical University showed valproic acid exposure resulted in phenotypes and behaviors consistent with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, and validated zebrafish as a model for studying ASD and its causes.

“The main thing we want to emphasize is the usefulness of this model,” said co-author Courtney Roper, a postdoctoral fellow in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We can very quickly look at genetic and environmental factors associated with autism that are very difficult to understand in humans. The ease and speed of the genetic analysis in this model make it very attractive compared to a rodent model.”

Autism spectrum disorder consists of five related neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by pervasive impairments in social interactions, deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication, repetitive patterns of behaviors and unusual sensitivity to sensory stimulation.

All of the factors behind autism are not known, but the etiology is known to have both genetic and environmental components, including prenatal exposure to two drugs: thalidomide, a sedative associated with severe birth defects, and valproic acid.

Autism diagnoses have been on the rise since the 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one child in 68 will be identified with autism spectrum disorder.

ASD strikes all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups but is about 4.5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than girls (1 in 189).

Zebrafish are a small freshwater species that go from a cell to a swimming fish in about five days. They reproduce rapidly and are particularly useful for studying the development and genetics of vertebrates, including the effects of environmental contaminants and pharmaceuticals on early embryonic development.

Zebrafish share a remarkable similarity to humans at the molecular, genetic and cellular levels, meaning many zebrafish findings are immediately relevant to humans. Embryonic zebrafish are of special interest because they develop quickly, are transparent and can be easily maintained in small amounts of water.

The OSU findings showed that treating zebrafish embryos with valproic acid, or VPA, starting eight hours after fertilization led to a significant increase in the ASD macrocephalic phenotype – i.e., an enlarged head.

It also caused hyperactivity of movement behaviors in embryos and larvae, and a tendency toward ASD-like larval social behaviors.

“In addition to the ASD-like characteristics, we observed an overgrowth of mature newborn neurons and neural stem cells in the developing brain after VPA exposure,” Roper said. “Next, now that we have models for behavior established, is to start looking at the genetic and environmental interactions, examining some of the potential factors that might be driving autism in humans.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The National Natural Science Foundation of China supported this research, as did Wenzhou Medical University.

Source: Courtney Roper – Oregon State University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract in Neurotoxicology and Teratology.

Cite This Article

Oregon State University “New Insights into Autism Spectrum Disorder.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 January 2018.

Oregon State University (2018, January 25). New Insights into Autism Spectrum Disorder. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 25, 2018 from

Oregon State University “New Insights into Autism Spectrum Disorder.” (accessed January 25, 2018).


Developmental and behavioral alterations in zebrafish embryonically exposed to valproic acid (VPA): An aquatic model for autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has complex neurodevelopmental impairments and origins that are linked to both genetic and environmental factors. Hence, there is an urgency to establish animal models with ASD-like characteristics to understand the underlying mechanisms of ASD. Prenatal exposure to valproic acid (VPA) produced ASD-like symptoms in humans, rats, and recently zebrafish. The present study investigated the use of VPA exposure to generate an ASD model in zebrafish. Early life stage exposures produced ASD-like phenotypes in the developing brain development and behavioral changes in embryonic and larval zebrafish. Our findings revealed that treating zebrafish embryos with VPA starting at 8 h post fertilization (hpf) resulted in significant: increase in the ASD macrocephalic phenotype; hyperactivity of embryo/larvae movement behaviors; and increases of ASD-like larval social behaviors. Further analysis showed increases in cell proliferation, the proportion of mature newborn neurons, and neural stem cell proliferation in the brain region, which may contribute to the brain overgrowth and macrocephaly observed following VPA exposure. Our study demonstrated that VPA exposure generates ASD-like phenotypes and behaviors, indicating that zebrafish is an alternative model to investigate underlying ASD mechanisms.

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