Scientists reverse disorder of neuronal circuits in autism

September 14, 2012
Synaptic networks in brains of rodent models of autism. Credit: Stephane Baudouin

People with autism suffer from a pervasive developmental disorder of the brain that becomes evident in early childhood. Peter Scheiffele and Kaspar Vogt, Professors at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, have identified a specific dysfunction in neuronal circuits that is caused by autism. In the respected journal Science, the scientists also report about their success in reversing these neuronal changes. These findings are an important step in drug development for the treatment for autism.

According to current estimates, about one percent of all children develop an . Individuals with autism may exhibit impaired social behavior, rigid patterns of behavior and limited speech development. Autism is a hereditary developmental disorder of the brain. A central risk factor for the development of autism are numerous mutations in over 300 genes that have been identified, including the gene neuroligin-3, which is involved in the formation of synapses, the contact junction between .

Loss of neuroligin-3 interferes with neuronal signal transmission

The consequences of neuroligin-3 loss can be studied in animal models. Mice lacking the gene for neuroligin-3 develop reflecting important aspects observed in autism. In collaboration with Roche the research groups from the Biozentrum at the University of Basel have now identified a defect in synaptic that interferes with the function and plasticity of the . These negative effects are associated with increased production of a specific neuronal glutamate receptor, which modulates the signal transmission between neurons. An excess of these receptors inhibits the adaptation of the synaptic signal transmission during the learning process, thus disrupting the development and function of the brain in the long term.

Of major importance is the finding that the impaired development of the neuronal circuit in the brain is reversible.  When the scientists reactivated the production of neuroligin-3 in the mice, the nerve cells scaled down the production of the glutamate receptors to a normal level and the structural defects in the brain typical for autism disappeared. Hence, these glutamate receptors could be a suitable pharmacological target in order to stop the developmental disorder autism or even reverse it.

Vision for the future: Medication for autism

Autism currently cannot be cured.  At present, only the symptoms of the disorder can be alleviated through behavioral therapy and other treatment. A new approach to its treatment, however, has been uncovered through the results of this study. In one of the European Union supported projects, EU-AIMS, the research groups from the Biozentrum are working in collaboration with Roche and other partners in industry on applying antagonists for the treatment of autism and hope, that in the future, this disorder can be treated successfully in both children and adults.

More information: Baudouin S. J., Gaudias J., Gerharz S., Hatstatt L., Zhou K., Punnakkal P., Tanaka K. F., Spooren W., Hen R., De Zeeuw C.I., Vogt K., Scheiffele K.
Shared Synaptic Pathophysiology in Syndromic and Non-syndromic Rodent Models of Autism, Science, Published online September 13 (2012) doi: 10.1126/science.1224159

Related Stories

Recommended for you

New autism genes are revealed in largest-ever study

September 29, 2015

In the largest, most comprehensive genomic analysis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) conducted to date, an international research team led by UC San Francisco scientists has identified 65 genes that play a role in the disorder, ...

Probing the mysterious perceptual world of autism

October 23, 2015

The perceptual world of a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unique. Beginning in infancy, people who have ASD observe and interpret images and social cues differently than others. Caltech researchers now have ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2012
"Iron increased secretion of glutamate in cultured lens and neuronal cells, indicating that this may be a common mechanism for the regulation of glutamate production in many cell types."

Increased iron in the brain has been linked to Autism.

"Currently, a growing number of reports have documented evidence of individuals with ASD displaying impairments associated with a common medical condition called hemochromatosis, a disorder characterized with increased intestinal absorption of iron and the deposition of excessive amounts of iron in multiple organs"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.