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Decoding Autism

This is big time, my friends! FORBES!

Decoding Autism
By: Robert Langreth

Mark Bear, 53, has been fixated on understanding the brain since he was 6–when he saw news commentators speculating about John F. Kennedy’s brain functioning after the shooting. He later became a neuroscientist, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spending most of his career doing basic research on how the brain’s cells form connections during learning.

Today researchers are buzzing about Bear and his radical new theory that offers a real glimmer of hope that some forms of autism may be treatable with drugs. The causes of autism have mystified scientists for decades. It has been blamed on everything from genes to environmental toxins to the discredited concept that childhood vaccines are the culprit.

Bear’s work suggests that a specific class of drug already sitting on drug company shelves may help patients with an inherited disease called fragile X syndrome, a common cause of autism. It hits one in 5,000 kids and causes mental retardation, anxiety and autism-like symptoms. While years of research remain, Bear theorizes those types of drugs might have application beyond fragile X and into autism in general.

In the wake of his results Roche and Novartis have begun testing an old class of experimental anxiety drugs called mGluR5 inhibitors in fragile X patients. Seaside Therapeutics, which Bear cofounded, licensed a similar drug from Merck that is set to enter tests in fragile X patients early next year. Another Seaside drug showed promising early results in a study of 28 autism patients. (Bear owns 5% of the company.)

“I have been in this field for 25 years, and these last two years have been the most exciting in my career,” says Randi Hagerman, a developmental pediatrician at the MIND Institute at UC, Davis who is testing several of the drugs.

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From Forbes Magazine.

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