UCLA scientists announced the first study to reveal how autism makes signature marks at the molecular level of the brain, developing autistic patterns of gene protein encoding that differ significantly from gene expression within healthy brains.
Autism has confounded researchers for decades, ScienceDaily reports, because the neurological disease appears to develop without leaving any physical traces and seems to have as many causes as there are autistic people -- but now a UCLA research team claims they have shed new light into the ways genes and proteins glitch up within brain cells as autism develops, altering the mind.
According to the ScienceDaily article about the study's findings that appear in the advance online edition of the journal Nature:
The research team, led by Dr. Daniel Geschwind, focused on the cerebral cortex, one of the brain areas most often linked to autism, also the most developed.
They compared brain tissue samples from 17 volunteers without autism with samples taken after death from 19 autism patients.
The researchers spotlighted gene expression, or the process of genes' encoding DNA sequences into RNA molecules, which then direct the synthesis of cellular proteins, each one key to a specific ,crucial cell function.
Gene-expression levels showed consistent differences in cellular information coding between healthy and autistic brain tissue samples, the team found, and they were further able to distinguish common patterns within the cerebral cortex's temporal lobes, in charge of hearing, sound processing, and language, and within its frontal lobe, linked to speech, creativity, judgement and emotions.
In the healthy brains, the researchers noted different gene expression levels between the frontal lobe and temporal lobes for over 500 genes, while these differences were absent in the autistic brains.
Also, the researchers saw two additional patterns: autistic brains showed lower levels of genes linked to communication and neuron function, but higher levels of genes associated with response to inflammation and immune function.
Discoveries like this, and further studies of gene expression in other parts of the brain associated with autism, are likely to uncover root causes and eventually lead to new treatments, the scientists say.
According to the PubMed Health online reference of the National Center for Biotechnolgy Information, autism is a complex developmental disorder that appears within the first few years of childhood, disrupting relationships, communication and behavior.
A detailed article about autism spectrum disorders, research findings and treatments appears on the National Institute of Mental Health website.