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Excessive Neuron Connections Identified in Autistic Children
- Updated: August 23, 2014
Although tremendous progress has been made in the understanding, diagnosing, and treating of Autistic children, this disease still leaves experts with a lot of unanswered questions. Recently, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center published a report in Neuron whereby more synapses than normal were found in the brain of both children and adolescents with Autism. Researchers believe this is because the brain’s pruning mechanism during development slows down.
In the publication, experts claimed the extra synapses are usually in areas where neurons connect and communicate, therefore having a dramatic effect on brain function. In addition, researchers were able to identify a specific drug to restore normal pruning for this very area of the brain. Called Rapamycin, the drug works but unfortunately, it comes with side effects for a large number of people with Autism. Even with a few glitches, experts feel optimistic that Rapamycin will be an effective drug.
As stated by David Sulzer, senior investigator of the study, “The fact that we can see changes in behavior suggests that Autism may still be treatable after a child is diagnosed”. The change identified was a surge of synaptic formation during infancy. However, throughout childhood and into late teen years, approximately 50% of the synapses are pruned.
This particular study involved the brains of 26 children with Autism but who had passed away from other causes. After examining the brains, experts found 13 were from children between the ages of 2 and 9 and the remaining 13 from older children aged 13 to 20. For sake of comparison, brains of 22 other children without Autism were examined.
To determine the number of synapses, small spines branching out from the cortical neurons were counted. For the brains of non-Autistic children, the number of synapses declined by about 50% whereas in the brains of children who had Autism, the drop was only 16%. The co-author of the study, Guomel Tang, linked the larger number of synapses with deficiencies within the brain’s autophagy degradation pathway, used by cells as a way of degrading their own components.
Also part of this study was the use of laboratory mice whereby the protein known as mTor was examined. This protein is responsible for the pruning defect so when overactive, brain cells cannot prune normally. The final piece of the study consisted of mice being given the drug Rapamycin. It was shown that Autistic-like behaviors were actually reversed.