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Autistic Behaviors May Be Connected to Slow Synapses

By Catherine Croft Swanwick, Ph.D. on August 9, 2012


Background:  Hundreds of genes are linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  Although these genes perform a wide variety of functions, most of them influence synapses.  Two well-known ASD risk genes, NRXN1 and NLGN1, are best known as cell adhesion molecules which help form synapses by sticking two neurons together.


What’s New:  Emerging evidence indicates new synaptic roles for NRXN1 and NLGN1.  In addition to acting as cell adhesion molecules, they send signals which regulate synapse communication.  When expression of NRXN1 or NLGN1 was blocked in worms or mice, their synapses communicated slowly and for longer periods of time.


Why it’s Important:  This evidence suggests a new neurobiological mechanism which may underlie autistic behaviors.  Next steps for scientists include discovering exactly how slower synapse communication may affect cognition.


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