How Odd Behavior in Some Young Horses May Reveal a Cause of Autism – Facts So Romantic

By gently squeezing maladjusted foals, veterinary researcher John Madigan recreates the experience of traveling through the birth canal, lowering the levels of certain neurosteroids and “waking up” the young horses.Joe Proudman / UC Davis

As a toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, Isaac Pessah focuses on how different molecules regulate human brain function and development. Yet when he found himself at the university’s equine research center, watching a troubled newborn foal, he was struck by its eerily familiar clinical symptoms.

Horses are prey animals, and like most animals whose chief form of defense is flight, they are up on their feet almost immediately after birth. At first they stagger around in the straw in their stalls, pitching their outsized legs out like tent poles for support, but within an hour or two they are on their feet and nursing.

For foals born with a disorder called maladjusted foal syndrome (MFS), that transition isn’t so smooth. These foals are detached and disoriented. They don’t seem to recognize their mothers, failing to make normal sounds or try to nurse. One foal at the UC Davis center couldn’t find his way out of a corner and tried to climb into the…
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