Promising Research in Autism: But Far From Cure

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Article first published as Promising Research in Autism: But Far From Cure on Technorati.Boy with autism plays with his life-sized Mickey Mouse.The journal Science has an article entitled Shared Synaptic Pathophysiology in Syndromic and Nonsyndromic Rodent Models of Autism, which found a common bond between Fragile X and autism. And what's more, they were able to "reverse" the autism-like symptoms, in mice. The article that drew my attention to this research was Neuronal Dysfunction Found In Autism can be Reversed, posted online at the Examiner. Imagine my surprise, and excitement, when I read that an effective cure for autism had been found! Of course, I checked my excitement and started to read the article. It seems that scientists have managed to duplicate the genetic effect that causes autism-like behaviors in mice with Fragile X Syndrome in mice with "autism". Basically, they introduced an antibiotic (an environmental stimulus), which caused the neuroligin-3 gene to turn off. This gene is instrumental in developing glutamate receptors and neural pathways. Without this gene, the brain just connects willy-nilly, and as a result causes autism-like symptoms. The research is ground-breaking, because they found a way to turn the gene off, and subsequently back on. That means, should this gene be defective in persons with autism, it's possible in the future to treat their autism with drugs. It could be possible, perhaps in the not too distant future, to have children with autism retain their minds but be able to engage socially. So why curb my excitement, if this is such a great breakthrough? There are a few things that are assumed by the news article (though not by the scientists):

  • Autism is caused by the neuroligin-3 gene: This is quite an assumption, since there are now over 200 genes found to be linked in some way to some form of autism. Still, as it is confirmed in those with Fragile X Syndrome, this is excellent news.
  • Non-environmental disruption of neuroligin-3 can be reversed: This will most likely be the next phase of the research. Biologists and neurologists will need to check to see if, when this gene is already turned off naturally, it can be turned back on using environmental drugs.
  • There is a biological consistency between humans and mice: As with most biological experimentation, this research was done on mice. The question now is, can it be reproduced in more complex mammals, such as humans? There is a lot of difference between a mouse and a little boy.

Of course, I'm not discouraged at all. I think any research that produces results such as these are fabulous. Clinical vetting still needs to be done, lots of research to test the theory, and of course there needs to be some test subjects and clinical trials, but all in all I think this is great news. Perhaps one day we will be able to have a way to treat autism's worst symptoms while unlocking the brilliant minds that are just waiting for us.