They Are Just Wired That Way: Autism Risk and the CNTNAP2 Gene

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Reuters has run a story about an article published in Science Translational Medicine, regarding the CNTNAP2 gene and the related brain growth patterns that result from it.  The study took  32 children and scanned them with an MRI while doing learning related tasks.  Half had autism, and the other half did not.  They found children with the CNTNAP2 gene had stronger brain connections in the frontal lobe, and weaker connections to the rest of the brain or and almost no connections throughout the brain.  So, essentially, the frontal lobe did a lot of talking, but just to itself. 

What is really interesting about this gene is that over 1/3 of the population carries this gene, and have similar brain wiring as those with Autism.  So the gene itself did not cause Autism, but it does identify one particular key to the Autistic mind:  all the children with Autism had this gene variant.  So the gene has been labeled a risk gene, and not necessarily an Autism gene.

But if it's not a cause for Autism, why is it so important?  Because it gives scientists a glimpse at how the brain wires itself, and how genes affect the wiring process.  By working with genes like CNTNAP2 and other potential Autism genes, scientists are able to better identify cause and effect.  It's possible that targeted genetic treatments can be used to both identify autism at an early age, and perhaps treat more severe forms of Autism. 

So, it's an interesting study, and one that I think has merit.  Let's hope more good work like this is found.