"Instead of having a highly efficient connection to the left side of the brain, they are sampling all over the frontal lobe," the researcher said. "That could help explain some of the language difficulties in autism."
Scott-Van Zeeland did the research as a doctoral candidate at University of California, Los Angeles.
The CNTNAP2 gene helps "wire" the brain: It is known to be active in utero when the structure of the brain is forming, Scott-Van Zeeland said. Unlocking its role in brain function could help in the development of new early interventions or treatments for autism.
Experts point out, however, that the gene variant is part of the spectrum of normal gene variation, and those who have it will not necessarily develop any intellectual disorder.
With some one-third of the population possessing the gene variant, not everyone who has the variant has autism, of course. Conversely, there are plenty of people with autism who don't have the variant, said Dr. Gary Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which serves children and teens with autism and other developmental disorders. Goldstein was not involved with the study.
So it's important to keep in mind that while people who have the CNTNAP2 variant may be more susceptible to autism, there are other genetic or environmental triggers involved, he explained.
But this study does "break new ground," he said, in correlating a known risk gene for autism with alterations in brain activity, as seen in functional MRI imaging.
Previous studies have linked certain genes with autism, while others have shown an association between brain imaging and a child's behavior. But this is among the first to show how a gene associated with autism might alter how the brain functions, Goldstein said.
Think of the brain like an orchestra, he suggested.
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