In the March 5th edition of Chemical and Engineering News there is a fascinating article by Lauren K. Wolf looking at recent explorations into the causes and potential treatments of autism. Decades ago autism was blamed on mothers who failed to show enough affection to their children and more recently it has been blamed on vaccines, however, science is now exploring the connection between genes and autism.
According to Ms Wolf, hundreds of genes have already been tagged as potential contributors to the spectrum of autistic disorders, and scientists are now moving to identify exactly what each of these genes does, what proteins they encode for and how they affect brain function.
One of the key reasons that this research can be carried out is the advance that have come with the sequencing of the human genome. Supported by autism advocacy organisations such as Autism Speaks public databases such as the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange have been established and can be used by scientists to share information about the various aspects of autism, including behaviours, brain activities and genetic information.
One of the genes with a strong association with autism is the synaptic gene SHANK3, which codes for a structural protein vital for the effective functioning of neurotransmitter receptors. Genetic mutations in SHANK3 disrupt neuron activity interfering with normal synaptic function. Guoping Feng, a neuroscientist at MIT has demonstrated that mutations in this gene in mice causes the mice to be less socially interactive with other mice, and to engage in obsessive grooming activity.
As well as describing various other genes potentially linked to autism, the article also describes some early explorations of possible treatments. It is well worth a read for anyone interested in scientific efforts towards a better understanding of autism.