Nav: Home

Explaining autism

February 17, 2016

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are a group of highly inheritable behavioural disorders that pose major personal and public health concerns. Patients with ASDs have mild to severe communication difficulties, repetitive behaviour and social challenges. Such disorders significantly challenge an individual's ability to conduct daily activities and function normally in society. Currently there are very few medication options that effectively treat ASDs.

Recognising a need to better understand the biology that produces ASD symptoms, scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Singapore, have teamed up and identified a novel mechanism that potentially links abnormal brain development to the cause of ASDs. This new knowledge will help to improve the diagnosis and development of therapeutic interventions for ASDs.

In the study, published today in the journal eLife, co-senior authors Assistant Professor Shawn Je from Duke-NUS and Assistant Professor Zeng Li from NNI have shown how one brain-specific microRNA (miR-128) plays a key role in causing abnormal brain development. MicroRNAs are small molecules that regulate gene expression in the human body to ensure proper cellular functions. Although it was known that miR-128 is misregulated in some patients with autism, what that meant and how it functioned was not known.

The Duke-NUS and NNI team showed that miR-128 targets a protein called PCM1 that is critical to the cell division of neural precursor cells (NPCs). NPCs during early brain development have two fates - they either stay as NPCs and undergo self-renewal or become neurons through differentiation. The dysfunctional regulation of PCM1 by misregulated miR-128 impairs brain development, which may underlie brain size changes in people with ASDs.

"For the first time, we have managed to show that miR-128 is a mechanism that regulates early neuronal behaviour during brain development," said Asst Prof Je, from the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders (NBD) Programme at Duke-NUS. "Targeting this mechanism may be the answer to diagnose and treat ASDs that are caused by abnormal brain development."

Asst Prof Li, from the Neural Stem Cells Laboratory at NNI, added, "This important study suggests a link between a key neurological disease gene and regulation of microRNAs in the brain. However, we are just starting to understand how misregulated miR-128 expression can cause our brain activities to go wrong, and much more work needs to be done."

In a separate study which is not yet published, this team with Professor Steve Rozen, from the NBD Programme at Duke-NUS, identified many new mutations in the PCM1 gene from ASD patients from next-generation sequencing. Future work to correlate these mutations with functional consequences in brain development should not only increase the understanding of how autism is caused, but also enable a more accurate diagnosis of autism and other ASDs.
-end-
Study authors include first authors, Dr Zhang Wei, a Post-Doctoral Fellow from the NNI and MD/PhD student Paul Kim from Duke-NUS. Research is supported by the A*STAR Translational Clinical Research Partnership Award.

Duke-NUS Medical School

Related Autism Articles:

Genes, ozone, and autism
Exposure to ozone in the environment puts individuals with high levels of genetic variation at an even higher risk for developing autism than would be expected just by adding the two risk factors together, a new analysis shows.
A blood test for autism
An algorithm based on levels of metabolites found in a blood sample can accurately predict whether a child is on the autism spectrum of disorder (ASD), based upon a recent study.
New form of autism found
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect around one percent of the world's population and are characterized by a range of difficulties in social interaction and communication.
Autism Speaks MSSNG study expands understanding of autism's complex genetics
A new study from Autism Speaks' MSSNG program expands understanding of autism's complex causes and may hold clues for the future development of targeted treatments.
Paths to Autism: One or Many?
A new report in Biological Psychiatry reports that brain alterations in infants at risk for autism may be widespread and affect multiple systems, in contrast to the widely held assumption of impairment specifically in social brain networks.
Raising a child with autism
Humans are resilient, even facing the toughest of life's challenges.
Explaining autism
Recognizing a need to better understand the biology that produces Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) symptoms, scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), Singapore, have teamed up and identified a novel mechanism that potentially links abnormal brain development to the cause of ASDs.
Autism breakthrough
Using a visual test that is known to prompt different reactions in autistic and normal brains, Harvard researchers have shown that those differences were associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway used by GABA, one of the brain's chief inhibitory neurotransmitters.
New options for treating autism
The release of oxytocin leads to an increase in the production of anandamide, which causes mice to display a preference for interacting socially.
The Autism Science Foundation launches the Autism Sisters Project
The Autism Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting and funding autism research, today announced the launch of the Autism Sisters Project, a new initiative that will give unaffected sisters of individuals with autism the opportunity to take an active role in accelerating research into the 'Female Protective Effect.'

Related Autism Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".