Scientists have found a clue to how autism spectrum disorder disrupts the brain’s information highways.
The problem involves cells that help keep the traffic of signals moving smoothly through brain circuits, a team reported [February 3] in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The team found that in both mouse and human brains affected by autism, there’s an abnormality in cells that produce a substance called myelin.
That’s a problem because myelin provides the “insulation” for brain circuits, allowing them to quickly and reliably carry electrical signals from one area to another. And having either too little or too much of this myelin coating can result in a wide range of neurological problems.
The finding could help explain why autism spectrum disorders include such a wide range of social and behavioral features, says Brady Maher, a lead investigator at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and an associate professor in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“Myelination could be a problem that ties all of these autism spectrum disorders together,” Maher says. And if that’s true, he says, it might be possible to prevent or even reverse the symptoms using drugs that affect myelination.