The findings suggest that existing drugs used to curb nicotine addiction might serve as the basis for potential therapies to ease the symptoms of autism.
The researchers identified a defining role for a protein made by the neurexin-1 gene, which is located in brain cells and assists in connecting neurons as part of the brain's chemical communication system.
The neurexin-1 beta protein's job is to lure another protein, a specific type of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, to the synapses, where the receptor then has a role in helping neurons communicate signals among themselves and to the rest of the body.
This function is important in autism because previous research has shown that people with autism have a shortage of these nicotinic receptors in their brains.
Meanwhile, scientists also know that people who are addicted to nicotine have too many of these receptors in their brains.
"If we were to use drugs that mimic the actions of nicotine at an early time in human brain development, would we begin to help those and other circuits develop properly and thus significantly mitigate the deficits in autism?", said Rene Anand, associate professor of pharmacology in Ohio State University's College of Medicine and principal investigator of the research.
"This is a novel way of thinking about how we might be able to use drugs to approach autism treatment. It would not be a complete cure, but right now we know very little and have no drugs that tackle the primary causes of autism," Anand added.
The drugs in question are known as cholinergic agents, which interact with the brain to counter nicotine addiction.
Anand said the drugs could be retailored for use in children in an effort to increase the level of neurexin-1 beta protein in the brains of people with autism.
More neurexin would in turn not only enhance the presence of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, but also a host of other proteins that are important for the proper formation and maturation of synapses.
Proper synapse function is crucial to the nervous system's ability to connect to and control other systems of the body.
The findings were presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C.