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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Fever can temporarily unlock autism's grip on children, a finding that could shed light on the roots of the condition and perhaps provide clues for treatment, researchers reported on Monday.
It appears that fever restores nerve cell communications in regions of the autistic brain, restoring a child's ability to interact and socialize during the fever, the study said.
"The results of this study are important because they show us that the autistic brain is plastic, or capable of altering current connections and forming new ones in response to different experiences or conditions," said Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, who was one of the study authors.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, was based on 30 children with autism aged 2 to 18 who were observed during and after a fever of at least 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
More than 80 percent of those with fever showed some improvements in behavior during it and 30 percent had dramatic improvements, the researchers said. The change involved things like longer concentration spans, more talking, improved eye contact and better overall relations with adults and other children.
Zimmerman's team said the fever effect had been noted anecdotally in the past by parents and doctors.
Lee Grossman, president and chief executive officer of the Autism Society of America, said he had noticed it in his own son, who is now 20.
But he noted in an interview that the study's authors said expanded research was needed on the fever effect and its implications. "It's good that they've noticed this and are bringing it forward," he said.
People with autism spectrum disorders suffer in varying degrees from limited social interactions, lack of verbal and non-verbal communication and other abilities.
As many as 1.5 million Americans have some form of autism, according to ASA. It is not known what causes the condition.
Zimmerman said that while there currently is no definitive medical treatment, speech and language therapy started as soon as possible after diagnosis "can make a significant difference."
He called the fever research, headed by colleague Laura Curran, "an exciting lead" that could help point the way to a treatment that would reconnect the autistic brain. He said the fever effect was believed found only in children, whose brains are more "plastic" than those of adults.
Editing by Andrew Stern and Eric Beech