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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Duke University Research Finds Another Clue to Causes of Autism

From the Triangle Business Journal

By Jason deBruyn
January 7, 2015

A Duke University study draws a new link that could shed new light on the causes of autism.

Human brains expand rapidly after birth as babies experience the world for the first time. During these crucial weeks and months of brain development, neurons in the newborn brain compete with one another to form lasting connections, called synapses.

A new Duke study gives a close-up of synapse refinement and identifies a protein that is crucial in this process.

Disruptions in the protein, called hevin, have previously been linked to autism, depression and suicide, but the molecule's role in the developing brain was mostly unknown until now.

The researchers focused on tiny protrusions of the neuron called spines that harbor synaptic connections. Neuroscience has long assumed that these little nubs serve as sites for single synapses.

But this study, published in the open access journal eLife and funded by the National Institutes of Health, shows that in the brains of newborn mice, some of the spines initially receive two or more inputs. As the brain matures, the spines then receive one. A technique known as three-dimensional electron microscopy made this observation possible.

"I was very excited about this finding," said first author William Christopher Risher, a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of senior author Çagla Eroglu. "I went to check the literature to see if anyone's really described (multiple-synapse spines) before. And there really hasn't been much."

The group also found that mice that are missing the gene that codes for the protein hevin retain more of these multiple synapses compared with normal mice. As the developing brain prunes away synapses to become more efficient, this could present problems.

The findings are far from a panacea for autism, but do offer another piece of information that could lead there, and Eroglu and the research group will study the molecular mechanisms of hevin and its potential contribution to health and disease.

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