TUESDAY, Sept. 25, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists in search of greater understanding of fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition tied to intellectual impairment, or "mental retardation," say they've found a way to boost the ability of mice with a similar condition to become more socially adept.
In the new study, the researchers report that they did so by stepping up the brain's ability to process chemical compounds called endocannabinoids.
Mice aren't humans, of course, and the scientists are a long way from finding a possible treatment for the condition. Still, the dream -- and the goal -- is to transform the lives of affected people.
"What we hope is to one day increase the ability of people with fragile X syndrome to socialize and engage in normal cognitive [mental] functions," study co-author Daniele Piomelli, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, said in a university news release.
Fragile X syndrome affects an estimated 100,000 people in the United States and often leads to mental retardation, epilepsy, autism and abnormal body growth. There is no cure.
The study authors performed their research on mice that were genetically engineered to show signs similar to those of humans with the condition. The researchers treated them to allow better processing of the chemical compounds. The mice became less anxious and less stressed-out by open space.
Commenting on the new study, Dr. Randi Hagerman, a fragile X syndrome researcher and medical director of the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, said the research is preliminary but helpful.
Marijuana triggers the same "receptors" in the brain that process these chemical compounds. Could marijuana help people with fragile X syndrome and autism, a similar condition? That's possible, Hagerman said. According to her, marijuana has been used to treat people with Tourette syndrome, and it reduces anxiety.
However, marijuana can also cause psychotic thinking, which some fragile X patients face as an extra risk already, Hagerman added. In addition, marijuana can have mind-dulling effects, she noted.
"It's definitely not going to be a cure-all," Hagerman said.
The study is published in the Sept. 25 online edition of Nature Communications.
Scientists note that research with animals often fails to provide similar results in humans.
Last week, another preliminary study of people with fragile X syndrome, published in the journal Neuron, found that a new pill might help them develop social skills.
For more about fragile X syndrome, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.