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Autism brain secrets revealed

5th November 2010

A gene commonly associated with high risk of autism has been shown to rewire the brain during a child's early years, a U.S. study has found.

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A research team at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) carried out a series of studies of functioning imaging scans.

Their research, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, suggests possible early interventions which could rebalance brain circuits during early development.

The study, led by neurology and psychiatry professor Daniel Geschwind, showed that some of the problems experienced by individuals with autism may be due to too many connections within the frontal lobe of the brain, and poor connections between the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain.

Using a blend of brain imaging and genetic detective work, researchers were able to find the crucial missing mechanisms linking altered genes to changes in brain functions and disrupted learning.

Geschwind said the findings represented a crucial part of the puzzle surrounding the way in which genes rearrange the brain's circuitry, not only in autism but in many related neurological disorders.

The team looked at the variations in brain function and connectivity resulting from two forms of the CNTNAP2 gene, one of which boosts the individual's risk of autism.

In previous studies, they had seen how this gene was much more active during early development when the frontal lobes are developing.

The frontal cortex has a high-concentration of the brain's dopamine system, which is linked to reward, long-term memory, planning, attention, will-power and learning.

It is commonly disrupted in children with autism.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), the research team scanned the brains of 32 children, 16 of whom were autistic, while they were performing tasks related to learning.

They wanted to find out the relative strength of pathways connecting different parts of the brain.

In the autistic children, the frontal lobe was overly connected to itself, while there was poor connection with other parts of the brain, especially the hind brain.

First author Ashley Scott-Van Zeeland said that, in the brains of these children, the front of the brain seemed engaged in conversation with itself, and barely at all with the back of the brain.

The study found that there was also a difference between how the left and right sides of the brain connected with each other, depending on which CNTNAP2 version the child carried.




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