For some time now, researchers have repeatedly looked to animals to help them improve their understanding of the causes and symptoms of autism that mirror those of humans with autism. For instance, a recent study found that while animals do not analyze their emotions like humans do, they do in fact experience them. This realization has helped a new generation of researchers to explore the relation between animal behavior and the neurochemistry behind emotion in order to see how animal brains process, or fail to, emotion in ways similar to individuals with autism.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that veterinary researchers at the University of California, Davis have begun teaming up with their colleagues in human medicine. In particular, these researchers are beginning to investigate a troubling disorder in newborn horses, or foals, and what connections it might have with childhood autism. In short, according to researcher, the common link could very well be unusual levels of naturally occurring neurosteroids.

To offer a bit of background, neurosteroids are endogenous steroids that rapidly alter neuronal excitablilty; in short, they are naturally occurring steroids that are created in the brain.

In horses, the disorder, known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome has vexed horse owners and veterinarians for centuries as foals affected by the disorder appear detached, are unable to recognize their mothers, and have zero interest in nursing.

According to UC veterinary professor John Madigan, “The behavioral abnormalities in these foals seems to resemble some of the symptoms in children with autism.”

This fact also became clear to Isaac Pessah who is a professor of molecular biology at UC David and investigates which environmental factors may play a role in the development of autism in children. According to Pessah, “There are thousands of potential causes for autism, but the one thing that all autistic children have in common is that they are detached.”

Currently, neonatal maladjustment syndrome occurs in approximately three to five percent of live births in foals, requiring around-the-clock bottle or tube feeding in addition to intensive care in a veterinary clinic for up to ten days, with eight percent of foals recovering from this initial period. While the syndrome has been regularly attributed to hypoxia—insufficient oxygen during the birthing process—researchers eventually came to the consensus that while hypoxia usually cause permanent damages, the majority of foals birthed with the syndrome were able to survive with no serious physiological issues.

Thus, scientists began to look at the role neurosteroids in the syndrome, which are essential to sustaining pregnancies in horses. In addition, neurosteroids help to keep foals in utero sedated, but once they are birthed, they must make the rapid adjustment to consciousness, which in normal cases are jettisoned from the blood stream.

However, in cases of maladjusted foals, researchers have found that the neurosteroids persist in the blood stream and thus are increasingly being seen as the cause behind this disorder since the foals’ behavior so directly mirrors the behavior of children with autism. Thus, Pessah and his colleagues are currently pursuing research into the theory that alterations in blood levels of certain neurosteroids may serve as a marker for the disorder, but still caution that theirs is only a theory that is yet to be validated or disproven.