Study Provides Clues to How Autism and Schizophrenia Develop

white miceA study done with mice may have provided some clues about how disorders such as autism and schizophrenia develop. It seems that the genes that are connected to these two disorders might only be active for a short period of time while brain is developing. This could be a first step towards understanding more about the genetic links to the disorders.

What causes autism? There have been several studies that have tried to determine the cause of autism. Many different potential factors have been identified that may, or may or may not, be a clue in the quest to find out exactly what causes autism. It is my understanding that we, as a society, do not have all the answers to that important question yet.

Similarly, there are some questions about what causes schizophrenia in children. It is my understanding this is something that needs to be studied more before we can say there is a definitive thing that causes the disorder.

A study done by researchers at the University of Oxford, King’s College London and Imperial College London was an attempt to learn more about what causes autism and schizophrenia. The study was done with mice.

Researchers mapped and detailed the gene activity in the brains of mice throughout their development from 15 day old embryos into adulthood. The results confirmed that autism and schizophrenia are developmental disorders that may be established early in life.

How early? It seems that these two disorders can be established when the brain is forming its first connections. There are some genes that are thought to be connected to both autism and schizophrenia. These genes expressed in the subplate neurons, but not afterwards. In other words, there is a short window in which these genes may express, and start the process towards either autism or schizophrenia.

Study author Zoltan Molnar had this to say:

Building the brain is like a house of cards. The early connections provide the foundation of the adult structure, and disruption of these may be the source of many developmental flaws. Subplate neurons provide a transient scaffold for the developing cerebral cortex and they assist in the development of the extra connectivity. If the scaffold is damaged, then the building shall not be fully functional.

The hope is that studies like this one will one day allow us to make an earlier identification of autism and childhood schizophrenia than we are able to right now. However, according to lead study author Anna Hoerder-Suabedissen, of the University of Oxford, the studies do not automatically mean we will be able to identify and modify genetic changes in utero in order to prevent the disorders.

Image by Mark Dumont on Flickr