Potential clues to how autism miswires the brain are emerging from a study of a rare, purely genetic form of the disorders that affects fewer than 20 people worldwide. Using cutting-edge "disease-in a-dish" technology, researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have grown patients' skin cells into neurons to discover what goes wrong in the brain in Timothy Syndrome. Affected children often show symptoms of autism spectrum disorders along with a constellation of physical problems.
Abnormalities included changes in the composition of cells in the cortex, the largest brain structure in humans, and of neurons that secrete two key chemical messengers. Neurons that make long-distance connections between the brain's hemispheres tended to be in short supply.
Most patients with Timothy Syndrome meet diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum disorder. Yet, unlike most cases of autism, Timothy syndrome is known to be caused by a single genetic mutation.
"Studying the consequences of a single mutation, compared to multiple genes with small effects, vastly simplifies the task of pinpointing causal mechanisms," explained Ricardo Dolmetsch, Ph.D., of Stanford University, a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grantee who led the study. His work was partially funded by a NIH Director's Pioneer Award.
Dolmetsch, and colleagues, report on their findings Nov. 27, 2011 in the journal Nature Medicine.
"Unlike animal research, the cutting-edge technology employed in this study makes it possible to pinpoint molecular defects in a patient's own brain cells," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "It also offers a way to screen more rapidly for medications that act on the disordered process."
Prior to the current study, researchers knew that Timothy syndrome is caused by a tiny glitch in the gene that codes for a calcium channel protein in cell membranes. The mutation results in too much calcium
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NIH/National Institute of Mental Health