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New Research Links Autism Spectrum Disorders to Impaired Brain Myelination

“If we get to these kids really early, we might be able to change their developmental trajectory and improve their outcomes.”



(TMU) — A new study involving the study of postmortem brain tissue from patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has revealed a cellular abnormality that impairs the brain’s information highways.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggested that the impairment of myelination in certain people diagnosed with ASD may be related to the disorder. Myelin is incredibly important. So much so in fact that having even a little bit too much or little can result in a host of neurological problems including multiple sclerosis. It insulates the brain’s circuits that are responsible for quickly carrying electrical signals from one place to another.

The involvement of myelin in ASD could shed some light onto why the disorders are on a spectrum with significant variations in features and severity. Brady Maher, lead investigator at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development (LIBD) and an associate professor in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, explained:

Myelination could be a problem that ties all of these autism spectrum disorders together.

If we get to these kids really early, we might be able to change their developmental trajectory and improve their outcomes.”

The finding may also explain why people diagnosed with ASD sometimes have brains that are the wrong size—either too large or too small—according to MPR.

Daniel R. Weinberger, MD, LIBD CEO and director said the finding “could be a sea change in our understanding of what causes people to suffer this serious brain disorder.

Dr. Flora Vaccarino, a Yale professor who was not involved in the research, said that problems with myelination can be found in “several developmental disorders and in particular in autism.”

As often happens during scientific research, the myelination problem was discovered while researchers were studying the brain cells of mice and looking for something completely different—a gene mutation that causes Pitt-Hopkins syndrome.

After confirmation of the discovery in the brain cells of mice, Andrew Jaffe began looking at the brain tissues of deceased people that had been diagnosed with ASD and he found problems with myelination.

According to Vaccarino, the next steps need to include a study of developing brain tissue grown in a petri dish.

Treatments to address problems with myelination are currently being developed for those suffering from multiple sclerosis, a disease that involves the erosion of myelin rather than an inability to produce it. If screening for brain myelination issues can be done early in life, there is hope that a new treatment may eventually exist to correct the problem and help change the trajectory of the disorder.

Maher and his colleagues are now testing compounds searching for a means to boost brain myelination at any age. Maher explained:

Because myelination is a lifelong process it provides a unique therapeutic opportunity that we can tap into throughout the lifespan. Along these lines, we are eager to see whether enhancing myelination in these mice can improve their ASD-associated behaviors. Promising candidates could then be considered for clinical studies.”

By Emma Fiala | Creative Commons |

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