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New Tourette’s Treatment? Understanding the Brain Chemical that Controls Tics

New research suggests a link between a brain chemical and the tics commonly associated with Tourette’s syndrome. Scientists are hopeful that new treatments will follow.

September 26, 2014

Nearly half of children with ADHD have an underlying tic disorder, like Tourette’s. What’s more, as many as 90% of people with Tourette’s also have ADHD. Parents of kids with ADHD already know that medications can help regulate the neurotransmitters that falter in the brain’s management system and cause attention and hyperactivity problems. Now, scientists may be on the brink of a similar treatment discovery for the tics characteristic of Tourette’s Syndrome.

A new study published in Current Biology unearthed a connection between a brain chemical and involuntary movement — a connection that could lead to new treatments for the disorder.

Tourette’s Syndrome is a neuropsychiatric disorder that is identified by a combination of multiple involuntary body movements and vocal noises called tics. It typically starts in childhood, between ages five and nine and continues to adulthood. There is currently no cure for Tourette’s, but many people, like World Cup superstar Tim Howard and American Idol James Durbin, learn to control it’s symptoms by adulthood.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham monitored the brain activity of subjects as they tapped their fingers. During this activity, the brain scans of 15 teenagers diagnosed with Tourette’s showed elevated Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) levels in the supplementary motor area (SMA), a part of the brain involved in planning and controlling movements when compared to scans of teens without the disorder.

The discovery challenges previously held medical assumptions. Typically, GABA suppresses brain cell activity, so scientists thought people with involuntary tics would have lower levels of the chemical. Instead, the brain regions associated with movement were lit up with activity. The researchers suspect that increased GABA levels are triggered by the tics; in other words, the GABA is stepping up to help the brain regain its composure. Thus, giving an extra dose could help further calm the involuntary movement.

While the definite relationship is still not 100 percent clear, what is apparent is that new treatments for tics are needed. Drugs like haloperidol and pimozide can block dopamine, which can be especially problematic for people with Tourette’s who also have ADHD. Additionally, the stimulant medications that help minimize the effects of ADHD can exacerbate tics.

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