Could There Be a Connection Between Maladjusted Foal Syndrome and Autism?

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A simple procedure that helps newborn foals has piqued the curiosity of medical professionals — and they’re now studying a possible connection to autism in human children.

Maladjusted foal syndrome or “dummy foal syndrome” has confounded vets and horse owners for over a century. Within hours after birth, symptoms are noticeable: a foal is able to stand, but appears woozy, unsturdy, and confused. He’s detached from those around him, doesn’t recognize his mother, and isn’t interested in nursing. This condition happens in 3-5% of live births in horses, and requires expensive, 24-hour care including bottle feeding for up to two weeks. After that, about 80% of horses recover from the syndrome. But now a simple procedure can help them — and it could mean big things for the autism community.

Researchers at UC Davis have been studying the foals, and found some similarities between this syndrome in newborn horses and autism in children. They’ve recently acquired the funding to study levels of neurosteroids, a group of chemicals that modulate perception — and they think that these chemicals may be a common factor in both disorders.

Unlike human babes, foals don’t move around in the womb. A kick from a baby can be uncomfortable (and awesome!) for a human mama — but for a horse, that could be dangerous. So pregnant horses naturally secrete a chemical that sedates their baby. Cool, right? But this also means that once the foal enters the outside world, he has to transition from calm to conscious, nursing, and on his hooves in just a few hours. Researchers think that it may be the physical pressure of birth that helps the foal achieve that.

The potential correlation with neurosteroids is still just a theory at this point that needs to be proved or debunked.

Watch the video to see a newborn foal deal with the syndrome, and learn more! Read the original newsbrief here.

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