Autistic Fish?

Minnows living in water with psychoactive pharmaceuticals have autism-like gene expression profiles, pointing to an environmental trigger for the disorder.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Active pharmaceuticals often find their way to the world’s drinking water, though the consequences of this are largely unknown. Now, new research published yesterday (June 6) in PLoS ONE, identifies at least one possible outcome—altered gene expression. Fathead minnows exposed to psychoactive medications in the water showed gene expression profiles that are associated with autism spectrum disorder in humans. The results suggest a potential environmental trigger for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in genetically susceptible populations, and may explain the association between antidepressant use by pregnant women and ASD in their kids.Michael Thomas of Idaho State University and colleagues tested three psychoactive pharmaceuticals—fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI); venlafaxine, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor; and carbamazepine, used to control seizures. They used concentrations estimated to be the highest found in the environment, which are still quite low, and saw that fish exhibited altered expression patterns in their brains...

“Our findings suggest a new potential trigger for idiopathic autism in genetically susceptible individuals involving an overlooked source of environmental contamination,” the authors wrote.

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