Dr. John Madigan is part of a research team at the University of California, Davis that is examining samples from 80 children, some with autism and others without it. 

But Madigan’s specialty isn’t autism or even humans. He is a professor of veterinary sciences.

He became involved in autism research after noticing some autistic-like behaviors in newborn horses and discussing his findings with colleagues at Davis. 

Image source: U.C. Davis

“Watching foals in this state, it was easy to draw a parallel to autism,” Madigan told Healthline. “We’re measuring something that hasn’t been measured before.”

His team is assessing levels of neurosteroids. Those are chemicals that control anxiety, depression, and other brain functions. Their hypothesis — supported by earlier research — is that children with autism have elevated levels of similar neurosteroids.

While the research is in its infancy, the discovery could lead to new treatments for autism spectrum disorder, which affects an estimated 3.5 million Americans

Get The Facts: What is Autism? »

Neurosteroids in ‘Dummy Foals’

As many as five percent of foals are born with a condition known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome (NMS). Physical symptoms include wandering, detachment, and disinterest in nursing, a striking similarity to children with autism.

It’s been a mystery to veterinarians for decades. Previously, the condition was believed to be caused by brain damage due to a lack of oxygen. In the wild, these horses would instantly fall to predators. 

“With intensive care, they can snap out of it and they’re fine for the rest of their lives,” Madigan said. 

But recent findings from Madigan and his team show that foals with NMS have 12,000 percent higher levels of certain neurosteroids. The eight known neurosteroids that are elevated in foals with NMS act as a sedative like Valium. 

“They’re the thing that keeps the foal from galloping in utero,” he said.

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But there’s supposed to be a shift in brain chemistry that alerts the foal it’s time to get up, nurse, and run. The majority of these foals can be rehabilitated, but traditional methods are intensive and costly

That was until Madigan developed a novel approach, dubbed the “Madigan Foal Squeeze.” The foal is put into a harness made of soft ropes, and as pressure is applied, the foal falls asleep. Within 20 minutes, the foal awakens to begin typical development.

“This produced a very drastic shift in consciousness,” Madigan said. 

The technique is meant to mimic the pressure of the birth canal, and the 20-minute sleep is typical of the birthing time. Somehow, this pressure could signal the brain to stop producing the neurosteroids that keep a foal docile in the womb. 

“It’s a process that has to occur,” Madigan said. “The switch must be flipped.”

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The Therapeutic Effects of Pressure

The pressure therapy used in Madigan’s approach for NMS is similar to a technique for humans developed by Temple Grandin, an autistic activist and animal behavior expert. 

In college, Grandin developed a “hug box,” a deep pressure device meant to simulate human comfort. Some small studies have confirmed these devices can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety in people with autism.

Grandin is known for her views about the relationship between the autistic and animals, including how autistic people are drawn to animals. 

“Animals are like autistic savants. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that animals might actually be autistic savants,” she wrote in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.

The idea of applying pressure — whether in a hug box for humans or to a foal with NMS — could help mitigate behavioral differences seen as a result of an interrupted birth. 

Similar results are seen when human babies are given “kangaroo care,” where they are swaddled in a blanket and have skin-to-skin contact with the mother. Research indicates this immediate care can provide better outcomes for newborns, including enhanced breastfeeding and improved neurodevelopment. 

Madigan’s ongoing research is part of a secondary hypothesis that disruptions in the birthing process may dramatically affect brain chemistry. Somewhere, during birth, the brain doesn’t get the proper signaling to stop the production of neurosteroids, a process that may be triggered as a newborn is squeezed through the birth canal.  

This is evident by an increased rate of NMS in foals birthed through a cesarean section, Madigan said. 

A research review published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry concluded that human babies born via C-section could have a 23 percent greater chance of developing autism.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, C-sections accounted for 32 percent all of deliveries in 2013, a more than 60 percent increase since 1996. Concerned the practice is being overused, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has developed clinical guidelines to reduce the rate of C-sections prior to 39 weeks when not medically necessary. 

“The birthing process is one of the more highly maladjusted processes today,” Madigan said.