Research by scientists from the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland has uncovered new information about the mechanisms underlying autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), to be published in the next issue of the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience.
Principal investigator, Dr Johanna Montgomery, says the findings are highly significant: “We’re moving beyond simply what happens in ASDs and starting to understand how it happens.”
The behavioural manifestations of ASDs are well documented and include impaired communication and socialisation, learning difficulties, and repetitive or stereotyped behaviours. These behavioural characteristics are in turn associated with a wide range of gene mutations. Many of these mutated genes are responsible for the production of specific proteins in the neurons of the brain.
Dr Montgomery and her team took a close look at parts of these neurons – the synapses, which are the structures that enable brain cells to communicate with each other. This cell to cell communication is vital for a healthy brain, and underlies how we learn, remember, move and sense.
In a complex cascade of chemical and electrical signalling, information is transmitted from one neuron to another at the synapses. This process is mediated by several families of protein, some of which form the bedrock of the synapse on the ‘listening’ side. Dr Montgomery’s team chose to investigate one of these proteins, known as Shank3, because it has been identified as vital to the communication process between two neurons, and because it is known to be mutated in ASDs.