Mutations in the gene NLGN3, found in some people with autism, alter mice’s gut nervous system, two new studies suggest. One of these mutations also affects the population of microbes that live inside their gut.
The same genes play a role in the nervous system of both the brain and the gut, so mutations in those genes affect both systems, says lead researcher Elisa Hill-Yardin, associate professor at RMIT University in Bundoora, Australia.
The results may help explain why gastrointestinal problems often accompany autism, Hill-Yardin says.
“This is really backing up what families have known for a long time,” she says. “What we might be able to do is treat the gut problems, and it may affect core behaviors.”
Mice with this mutation express the gene at about 10 percent of typical levels. And they have impaired social interaction and repetitive behaviors, along with changes in brain activity.
The mice’s guts contract faster and their colons have a slightly larger diameter than those of controls, but it is unclear what health effects these differences have.
Hill-Yardin’s team next plans to determine whether modifying mice’s gut function influences their behavior.
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