Newborn Foals and Childhood Autism

By Margaret Evans

Is there a common denominator between equine neonatal maladjustment syndrome in newborn foals and children born with autism? 

According to a University of California, Davis, press release, foals born with maladjustment syndrome seem detached, don’t recognize their dams, and they have no interest in nursing. The condition, also known as dummy foal syndrome, occurs in three to five percent of live foal births. However, with intensive care, 80 percent of the foals recover.

For years, the syndrome was thought to be caused by hypoxia, or insufficient oxygen during birth. But hypoxia results in serious, permanent damage. Most foals with maladjustment syndrome, though, not only survive but they have no lingering health problems.

Veterinary researchers at the University of California, Davis, wondered why and began looking for other possible causes. They were drawn to the foals’ sense of detachment which was eerily similar to detachment symptoms displayed by all autistic children.

“The behavioural abnormalities in these foals seem to resemble some of the symptoms in children with autism,” said John Madigan, a UC Davis veterinary professor and an expert in equine neonatal health.

The maladjustment syndrome in foals also caught the attention of Isaac Pessah, a professor of molecular biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a faculty member of the MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders).

Madigan, Pessah, and other veterinary researchers teamed with their colleagues in human medicine to investigate possible connections between the disorder in foals and childhood autism. One common link seemed to be abnormal levels of naturally occurring neurosteroids which not only sustain pregnancies in horses but keep the foal with its long legs and tiny hooves relatively quiet in the womb. But immediately after birth, the foal must be ready to scramble up, know its mother, nurse, and be able to run in the face of predatory danger. Somewhere in the birthing journey, a biochemical “switch” must activate the process and that switch could be the physical pressure exerted on the foal’s body during passage through the birth canal.

“We believe that the pressure of the birth canal during the second stage of labour, which is supposed to last 20 to 40 minutes, is an important signal that tells the foal to quit producing the sedative neurosteroids and ‘wake up’,” said Madigan.

Curiously, many foals with maladjustment syndrome were either delivered by cesarean section or had a very rapid birth. In both cases, maybe the pressure switch didn’t get activated.

The research team has found for the first time that neurosteroids persist, and their levels often rise, in the bloodstream of foals born with maladjustment syndrome. These neurosteroids can cross the blood-brain barrier and impact the central nervous system.

The researchers have now discovered that they can reduce maladjustment signs by using several loops of a soft rope to gently squeeze the foal’s upper torso and mimic the pressure normally experienced in the birth canal. When the rope pressure is applied, the foal lies down and appears to be asleep. After 20 minutes, a typical time in the birth canal, the rope is loosened and the squeeze pressure released.

Initially, the foals given the procedure have responded well, some rising to their feet within minutes, bonding with the mare and nursing.

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foals maladjustment syndrome, autism and horses, hypoxia horse, dummy foal syndrome, lack of oxygen foal, isaac pessah, madigan foal squeeze procedure

foals maladjustment syndrome, autism and horses, hypoxia horse, dummy foal syndrome, lack of oxygen foal, isaac pessah, madigan foal squeeze procedure

The upper torso of this maladjusted foal is squeezed using several loops of soft rope to mimic the pressure normally experienced in the birth canal. Madigan’s research has found the squeezing to help the foal recover from Neonatal Maladjustment Syndrome, sometimes within hours. Photos: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

The early findings have compelling implications not only for the health of newborn foals, but also for possible links to autism, which includes a group of complex brain development disorders. The theory is that the pressure triggers biochemical changes in the central nervous system critical to the transition from the relative quiet of the fetus in the womb to the boisterous wakefulness of the newly born foal. The technique is now called the Madigan Foal Squeeze Procedure.

“The concept that a disruption in the transition of fetal consciousness may be related to children with autism is intriguing,” said Pessah.

Using data from the foal research, Pessah and Madigan are working with researchers at the MIND Institute to investigate neurosteroids in children with varying degrees of autism and a recent study has reported elevated levels of neurosteroids in autistic children.

The interlinking research between challenged foals and babies continues to astonish and amaze researchers.

“The concept that some disorders in animals and humans may be related to a failure of transition of consciousness at birth is a novel idea,” said Madigan. “Evolutionary biological mechanisms for survival and adaptation after birth are important concepts, whether it’s a newborn foal or a newborn infant. In this case, it may very well be that the horse is allowing us to learn something about ourselves.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

Main article photo: UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine professor and researcher John Madigan, inspects a maladjusted foal at Victory Rose Thoroughbreds in Vacaville, California, on January 21, 2015. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis


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