Veterinary researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), are teaming up with their colleagues in human medicine to investigate a troubling disorder in newborn horses and are exploring possible connections to childhood autism. The common link, the researchers suggest, could be abnormal levels of naturally occurring neurosteroids.

The equine disorder, known as neonatal maladjustment syndrome, has puzzled horse owners and veterinarians for a century. Foals affected by the disorder seem detached, fail to recognize their mothers, and have no interest in nursing.

“The behavioral abnormalities in these foals seem to resemble some of the symptoms in children with autism,” said John Madigan, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, ACAW, a UC Davis veterinary professor and expert in equine neonatal health.

The maladjustment syndrome in foals also caught the attention of Isaac Pessah, MS, PhD, a professor of molecular biosciences at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a faculty member of the UC Davis MIND Institute, who investigates environmental factors that may play a role in the development of autism in children.

“There are thousands of potential causes for autism, but the one thing that all autistic children have in common is that they are detached,” Pessah said

Madigan, Pessah, and other researchers in veterinary and human medicine recently formed a joint research group and secured funding to investigate links between the two conditions.

Maladjusted Foal Syndrome

Neonatal maladjustment syndrome, or dummy foal syndrome, occurs in 3% to 5% of live foal births. With around-the-clock bott