What goes wrong in the brain when an individual suffers from autism. Autism is a spectrum of developmental disorders of impaired social and verbal interaction. Currently, no medication exists to treat its underlying causes, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Understanding what goes awry in autistic brain development could improve prospects for treating the condition.
Neuroscientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have homed in on potential differences in autistic people’s brain cells by studying brainlike spheres grown in an elaborate process from skin cells.
The scientists studied cells from patients with Timothy syndrome, a rare genetic condition that is associated with one of the most penetrant forms of autism: In other words, most people with the Timothy syndrome mutation have autism as a symptom, among other problems.
In this study, the scientists suggest that the autism in Timothy syndrome patients is caused by a gene mutation that makes calcium channels in neuron membranes defective, interfering with how those neurons communicate and develop. The flow of calcium into neurons enables them to fire, and the way that the calcium flow is regulated is a pivotal factor in how our brains function.
The researchers also found brain cells grown from individuals with Timothy syndrome resulted in fewer of the kind of cells that connect both halves of the brain, as well as an overproduction of two of the brain’s chemical messengers, dopamine and norepinephrine. Furthermore, they found they could reverse these effects by chemically blocking the faulty channels.
Postdoctoral scholar Sergiu Pasca, MD, and Ricardo Dolmetsch, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology, led the study, which will be published in Nature Medicine. Dolmetsch, a biophysicist, redirected his research to study autism after his son was diagnosed with Timothy syndrome. It’s unclear what leads to autism, but its incidence is increasing, he said.
The gaps in our understanding of the causes of psychiatric disorders such as autism have made them difficult to treat. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to research into autism and other psychiatric and neurological diseases is that scientists can’t get living brain cell samples from people with these conditions, for obvious reasons. Dolmetsch and his colleagues figured out a solution to this dilemma, using a novel approach involving what are known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.
“We developed a way of taking skin cells from humans with Timothy syndrome and converting them into stem cells, then converting those stem cells into neurons,” said Dolmetsch.
Source: Stanford University Medical Center, USA