Children with autism have too many “junction boxes” in their brains, a study has found.
The surplus synapses – places where neurons connect and communicate – are due to a lack of “pruning” that normally occurs early in life.
In mice with autistic traits, scientists were able to restore synaptic pruning and reduce symptoms with a drug used to suppress the immune systems of transplant patients.
The drug, rapamycin, has side effects that make it unsuitable as an autism treatment. But the discovery opens up exciting possibilities for other therapies based on synaptic pruning.
Excessive synapses could be a fundamental causal factor behind autism, the scientists believe.
“This is an important finding that could lead to a novel and much-needed therapeutic strategy for autism,” said Professor Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, where the research took place.
Autism is believed to be triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that impact the developing brain.
During normal brain development, a burst of synapse formation occurs in infancy, especially in the cortex – a region closely linked to autistic behavior.
Pruning removes more than half of these cortical synapses by late adolescence.
Synapses are known to be affected by many genes linked to autism, leading to speculation about the role they play in the condition.
How do I feel about this research?
There is an ongoing debate about how much funding should be allocated to research verses how much should go directly to services and awareness.
I?m a big fan of balance. I think research is important.
Will any of this research “fix“ my son and do I want him ‘fixed’?
No. He will probably always be on the autism spectrum under mild, high functioning autism. If he did “graduate“ off the spectrum, then so be it.
Perhaps one day he won?t need services. Or, he might continue to need them until after high school or even into adulthood.
Either way, my son is a marvel. He is who he is. He?s autistic and his brain synapses work they way they do.
However, research is important. We do want the numbers of diagnosed kids with autism to go down. If research can play a role in that, I?m all for it.
Plus, I do find it interesting. I don?t get angry at the thought that scientific research of this type will not help my child because there are lessons to be learned. Scientists are researching the brain, and there?s still a lot of unknowns about the brain.
Therefore, I?m an advocate of research. I see value in it. And, I see value in keep a balance across the board. For my child and for all autistics.
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