Brief periods of oxygen deprivation near birth may magnify, or even cause, listening and learning deficits like those associated with autism, according to a study in rats.
Although a number of genes have been linked to the developmental origins of autism, researchers believe environmental factors, such as toxins, infections, drug and alcohol exposure, and oxygen deprivation, may contribute to the severity of language and listening impairments common to the disorder.
To explore how oxygen deprivation affects the brain's auditory system, Fabrizio Strata, PhD, and colleagues at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco briefly altered oxygen levels in newborn rat pups, and then assessed their behavioral responses to sounds as young adults.
Oxygen-deprived rats were less sensitive to acoustic stimuli than were control rats, responding more sluggishly and requiring louder sounds to provoke a response. In parallel, activity in brain regions that process auditory information was grossly degraded.
These findings show that brief episodes of perinatal oxygen starvation, similar to those observed in complicated pregnancies and labors, may impair the auditory system and magnify listening and language deficits.
The researchers suggested that oxygen deprivation in newborn rats might provide a useful model for studying developmental disorders, such as autism.
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