Workshop plumbs infancy for autism signs

infancy workshopWhat are the earliest signs of autism? Do signs differ between genetically defined autism subtypes? What are cognitive milestones of early development for all children? Is there a way to study these aspects in animal models of autism?

These and other questions surfaced throughout a SFARI-sponsored workshop entitled “Next Steps in Infancy Research on Autism,” held on April 18, 2019. The workshop brought together 12 experts, including those who study child development but not autism, as well as clinicians, geneticists and epidemiologists. The ensuing conversations — part research updates, part brainstorms — touched on measurable aspects of infant development that might be sensitive enough, reliable enough and easy enough to use to help detect, parse and model autism.

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A conversation with Dan Feldman

FeldmanDan Feldman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, studies the rodent somatosensory cortex, which is famous for its organized groupings of neurons, called ”barrels.” There, his lab has been testing an influential idea about autism: the excitatory-inhibitory (E-I) imbalance hypothesis. This proposes that an excess of excitatory signaling relative to inhibitory signaling in the brain leads to symptoms of autism.

In a recent paper, Feldman’s lab found evidence for the E-I imbalance hypothesis, but not exactly in the way many expected: the changes appeared to reflect a compensation for some other problem in the circuit, rather than a primary deficit causing circuit hyperexcitability. I recently spoke with Feldman to discuss these findings and what they might mean for therapeutic approaches aimed at restoring inhibition in autism.

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Autism protein connects neurons

An autism-linked protein called CASPR2 promotes the development of dendrites, the bushy structures atop neurons that receive signals from other neurons. The study, published 30 October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the molecule helps set up the lines of communication in the brain early in development.

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MeCP2 loss ups signal strength

Neurons lacking MeCP2, the protein deficient in Rett syndrome, have stronger signals than controls do when measured amid the electrical activity used by neurons to communicate. The findings suggest that how signals are measured can affect studies of other autism-related mutations.

Read this article at SFARI.