A tiny light at the end of the autisms tunnel

A neuron from the brain of young person with autism. A new study finds that young people with autism have excess synapses. Credit: Guomei Tang and Mark S. Sonders/CUMC.

Having a daughter that is working as educator to support children with ASD, Autisms Spectrum Disorder, I am very much interested in this area that seems to defeat any dream of cure. 
We have seen significant progress made in the understanding of the physical, biological substrate of autisms disorder, but the more we know, e.g. the involvement of genes, now counted in the hundred, the more hopeless a cure seems.

Hence this news from the Columbia University struck me as particularly interesting.

Researchers have found out that although there are many factors involved in ASD they result in an abnormal number of synapses in the brain.

The brain evolves in the very first years of life first by growing the number of synapses (and related connections among neurones) and then by pruning them so that a child 14 years old has about half the synapses he had when he was 3 years old. It is a case were less is more!

Even more interesting, the researchers have been able to ascertain that the same is true for mice having an "autistic" behaviour, although it is tricky to compare that with the one of a child, and that administering a drug, rapamycin, results in a decrease of synapses AND in the weakening of the autistics behaviour.

Rapamycin has some undesired effects so testing on humans is out of the question but clearly the hope to find someday a cure to ASD is becoming science.

Notice, however, that it is not just a matter of removing some synapses and everything will be fine. A brain is quite different from one of our machines. Everything in a brain is connected and t is exactly because of these connections that we feel how we feel. Altering some of them can have completely unexpected consequences.

The effort on the study of "The Human Brain" by the European flagship program is expected to give us an increased knowledge on this very special machine and along with that conceptual tools to modify it. Let's hope for the best.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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