Fever May Improve Behavior in Autistic Kids

But some believe that it brings scientists one step closer to discovering whether or not faulty nerve connections in the brain or imbalances in chemicals are at the root of the disease.

The ASA for example, says the study is a "very significant contribution to research" because it looked at the biological, and not merely genetic, causes of autism.

"This is a very important study for its small size, because it shows that severity of some things can change," said Herbert. "And it means that something biological that comes with fever is related to this change. This study has produced some very valuable clues to the autism puzzle."

Mechanism Remains a Mystery

Although fever appears to have the ability to change behavior, experts still can't explain exactly why this is the case.

The authors suspect that fever causes changes in the brain, influencing the connection between nerves or perhaps the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, but they cannot say for sure.

Nonetheless, Herbert agrees with the authors that fevers may alter the brain at the cellular level.

"The first thing we would suspect would be substances that circulate in the blood when we have a fever, called cytokines," she said. "It's also possible that cell membranes or cell receptors function differently when they are hotter. Networks in the brain may function differently, or the energy metabolism in cells in the brain may change in autism."

If researchers can discover how fever improves conditions, they may be able to develop drugs that could act in the same way. Unfortunately, though, that prospect remains a long way off.

"This is a very interesting finding worthy of future investigation to see if it begins to reveal a clearer understanding of the mechanisms involved in the cognitive impairments in autism, which could ultimately yield a therapeutic intervention," said David Beversdorf, assistant professor of neurology at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

In the meantime, however, experts warn that parents should not induce fever in their children or withhold medical treatment to replicate the reported improvements in behavior.

"This [study] doesn't mean that children should have more fevers," said Herbert. "But it does mean that something about fevers relates to something that influences the autism, and this is a significant clue about how autism may work."

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