Zebrafish With Autism Gene Improve With Estrogen Treatments

A Yale-led team of scientists has found that estrogen can reverse abnormal behavior in zebrafish carrying a gene mutation strongly associated with autism and seizures in humans, according to a release from the university. The effect of the female hormone intrigued scientists because autism is much more common, by about four times, in males than in females.

The research team focused on the gene CNTNAP2. A mutation in this gene in some Amish families has previously been shown to cause a form of autism and epilepsy. Scientists looked specifically that the effects of disrupting this gene in zebrafish, which are transparent enough for visualizing what brain impacts there are.

What researchers saw was that mutations in the gene resulted in a loss of inhibitory neurons in the developing brain and caused the zebrafish to become hyperactive at night. From there, scientists compared behaviors of fish exposed to drugs that act like estrogen to find that using those drugs could restore normal activity levels at night for the fish under study.

Researchers note that the compounds don’t act like a sedative but instead have a specific effect that reduces the hyperactivity in a targeted way. Their results could help other scientists understand the function of autism risk genes in brain development, they say.


Gene expression patterns in a zebrafish with autism risk gene. (Credit: Yale University)

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