Scientists make autism breakthrough

PROGRESS: A team of scientists at Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research have made a breakthrough.
PROGRESS: A team of scientists at Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research have made a breakthrough.

Scientists at Auckland University's Centre for Brain Research say they have gained new understandings of the causes of autism, opening up new avenues for possible treatment.

The ground-breaking research, done in collaboration with Stanford University, looked at brain cell communication and genetic mutations in people with autism.

The team discovered autism was caused by mutated brain proteins, called Shank3, weakening communication between brain cells.

Head researcher Jo Montgomery said the discovery was exciting because it meant treatments could be investigated.

''Brain cells are incredibly sociable cells in the brain and they talk to each other all the time,'' she said. ''There are about 10 trillion brain cells connected by about 10 billion synapses which gives you an idea of how much chatter is going on in your brain at one time, and all that chatter underlies how you see things, how you move, how you learn and how you remember things.

''What we showed is that when you have these autism-associated mutations, this changes how synapses in the brain function.''

Montgomery said there was reason to get excited about the possibilities for a cure to autism, at some stage in the future.

''This is becoming an increasingly prevalent disorder - the latest numbers are 1 in 82 children,'' she said. ''We're not entirely sure why that is and this is becoming a major issue, we need to find out what's going on and try to help some of those people who are severely affected by it.''

Montgomery said the Shank3 protein would normally provide a foundation for receiving information and help the synapse ''talk back''. However, mutated Shank3 proteins, found in people with autism, didn't work.

''This is a very hot area of research at the moment because there is no known cause to autism,'' she said. ''There is a very strong genetic link but the problem is not everyone has the same genetic mutation which makes it very difficult to find out what is causing autism and how we treat it.''

Montgomery said now that the ''first wave of research'' had shown what happened further investigations could be done to target the mutated proteins.

''We can try and rescue normal behaviour and cognitive abilities in children who are very far in the autism spectrum and are severely disabled by this disorder,'' she said.

''Autism is a relativity new area for research at the Centre for Brain Research and now we're coming together with geneticists and other scientists within the university to form research networks that will then link with clinicians to get more information from the New Zealand population - it's a really exciting time.''

The Centre for Brain Research's findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience last week.

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