Can diuretics be used to prevent autism?

Three days ago, French researchers published an article in Science with data supporting the idea that diuretic drugs can be used to prevent autism onset at birth, as the drugs lower chloride levels in the brain.

Scientists believe that abnormally high levels of chloride in nerve cells at birth may be a cause of autism. In the womb, chloride levels are kept high in neuronal cells to assist in normal development. However, during birth and delivery, the mother releases a hormone, oxytocin, which dramatically decreases the chloride levels. The decrease in chloride is fundamental for normal brain development. This is commonly known as the autism “switch” – the switch is on in the womb, and must be flipped off at birth for normal brain development. Children with autism have a problem turning the switch off.


Oxytocin is an essential hormone that reduces chloride ion levels at birth. When oxytocin is not present, the chloride levels do not drop and there is an increased risk of autism development.

To show that high levels of chloride correspond with autism onset, the researchers looked at two rat models of the disease. In both, the blocking of oxytocin at birth resulted in high levels of chloride and future development of the animal version of autism. Along with blocking oxytocin, the scientists administered the mother a diuretic right before delivery, which in turn caused lower levels of chloride in the neurons along with no development of the disease.

The findings may implicate future treatment, and possibly even prevention, of autism spectrum disorders. The data also supports a previous study in 2012 where autistic children were given diuretic drugs and generally symptoms improved.


To read the article:

Tyzio R., et al. “Oxytocin-mediated GABA inhibition during delivery attenuates autism pathogenesis in rodent offspring.” Science 2014 February 07;343(6171):675-9.

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