Gene mutation is linked to autism-like symptoms in mice

Feb 23, 2010
Dr. Craig Powell

(PhysOrg.com) -- When a gene implicated in human autism is disabled in mice, the rodents show learning problems and obsessive, repetitive behaviors, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found.

The researchers also report that a drug affecting a specific type of nerve function reduced the obsessive behavior in the animals, suggesting a potential way to treat repetitive behaviors in humans. The findings appear in the Feb. 24 issue of the .

"Clinically, this study highlights the possibility that some autism-related behaviors can be reversed through drugs targeting specific abnormalities," said Dr. Craig Powell, assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at UT Southwestern and the study's senior author.

"Understanding one abnormality that can lead to increased, repetitive motor behavior is not only important for autism, but also potentially for obsessive-compulsive disorder, compulsive hair-pulling and other disorders of excessive activity," Dr. Powell said.

The study focused on a protein called neuroligin 1, or NL1, which helps physically hold nerve cells together so they can communicate better with one another. Mutations in proteins related to NL1 have been implicated in previous investigations to human and mental retardation.

In the latest study, the UT Southwestern researchers studied mice that had been genetically engineered to lack NL1. These mice were normal in many ways, but they groomed themselves excessively and were not as good at learning a maze as normal mice.

The altered mice showed weakened nerve signaling in a part of the brain called the , which is involved in learning and memory, and in another brain region involved in grooming.

When treated with a drug called D-cycloserine, which activates nerves in those brain regions, the excessive grooming lessened.

"Our goal was not to make an 'autistic mouse' but rather to understand better how autism-related genes might alter brain function that leads to behavioral abnormalities," Dr. Powell said. "By studying that lack neuroligin-1, we hope to understand better how this molecule affects communication between neurons and how that altered communication affects behavior.

"This study is important because we were able to link the altered neuronal communication to behavioral effects using a specific drug to 'treat' the behavioral abnormality."

Future studies, Dr. Powell said, will focus on understanding in more detail how NL1 operates in .

Explore further: What monkeys can teach us about pitching in the World Series

Related Stories

Study finds first-ever genetic animal model of autism

Dec 09, 2007

By introducing a gene mutation in mice, investigators have created what they believe to be the first accurate model of autism not associated with a broader neuropsychiatric syndrome, according to research presented at the ...

Decreased levels of binding gene affect memory and behavior

Dec 10, 2008

Reducing the activity of a gene called FKBP12 in the brains of mice affected neuron-to-neuron communication (synapse) and increased both fearful memory and obsessive behavior, indicating the gene could provide a target for ...

Recommended for you

New ALS associated gene identified using innovative strategy

22 hours ago

Using an innovative exome sequencing strategy, a team of international scientists led by John Landers, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has shown that TUBA4A, the gene encoding the Tubulin Alpha 4A protein, ...

Can bariatric surgery lead to severe headache?

22 hours ago

Bariatric surgery may be a risk factor for a condition that causes severe headaches, according to a study published in the October 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurol ...

Bipolar disorder discovery at the nano level

22 hours ago

A nano-sized discovery by Northwestern Medicine scientists helps explain how bipolar disorder affects the brain and could one day lead to new drug therapies to treat the mental illness.

User comments : 0