Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects how a person learns, interacts and communicates. The disorder can also involve a wide range of symptoms, including difficulty regulating body temperature.
Links between the temperature deficits and social-cognitive impairment are poorly understood, University of New Orleans psychology professor Christopher Harshaw said.
The elevation of core body temperature that typically accompanies social interaction—known as social hyperthermia—and temperature regulation by the hormone oxytocin have promise as mechanisms that may bridge that explanatory gap, according to Harshaw.
Harshaw has been awarded a three-year, $144,400 grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents to explore the nature of social hyperthermia using two mouse models. One set of mice have both social and thermoregulatory deficits and the other has deficits in social behavior, Harshaw said.
The research is entitled “Oxytocin, Social Hyperthermia, and Mouse Models of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
“Since we know that there are temperature regulation deficits in some cases of autism, it is possible that this research might ultimately help understand what’s going on in autism,” Harshaw said. “Especially if that person has difficulty regulating body temperature or is hypersensitive to temperature, it could be that there’s a mechanism that is affecting both social behavior and temperature regulation and, in some cases, it might actually be oxytocin.”
Mice will be given injections that either leave active or inactivate their receptors for the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, then researchers will study their temperature responses and behavior during social interaction. In a previous study conducted by Harshaw, researchers found that oxytocin had both pro-social and anti-social effects.
“Part of the reason they can’t just give oxytocin to people and expect good things to happen is that it does increase certain pro-social behaviors especially towards familiar people but it’s also known to jack up some aggressive behavior against unfamiliar individuals,” Harshaw said. “That’s some of what we found in our last study … in this study we hope to gain a better understanding of the hyperthermic response, which may ultimately lead to a scientific understanding both of ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings and the 'dark side’ of social behavior.”
Researchers know social interaction results in an automatic elevation of core body temperatures in humans and animals. However, scientists don’t know the reason for that temperature change, Harshaw said.
“I think most people in physiology and neuroscience would assume that it’s just a stress response,” Harshaw said. “We are looking to see if that’s true or if it is a more special response that’s specific to social behavior.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harshaw’s research will also eventually explore whether social hyperthermia could be part of the body’s immune response.
Research has shown that prior to eating, animals also generate a fever to increase their body’s temperature. Food, like social interaction, is a common source of pathogens, Harshaw said.
“It makes sense that (fever) would be a similar defense against pathogens you might acquire socially," Harshaw said. "I mean, COVID has gotten people to where they can start to think about these hypotheses a little bit more easily.”