Cerebral Hemispheres 2
NEUROSCIENTIFICALLY CHALLENGED

NEUROSCIENCE MADE SIMPLER

Neuroligin and Autism


The rapid increase in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses over the last 15 years is alarming. A number of reasons for the rise have been suggested, some of which have sparked debate that occasionally becomes laden with vitriol. Many people, surprised and frightened by what they see as the unprecedented appearance of a novel disorder, are looking for answers and pointing fingers at parties they feel may be culpable. The etiology of ASD is unknown, and perhaps we will find that some of the impassioned claims made by groups like Generation Rescue are valid. But the idea that the emergence of such a disorder occurred overnight is not completely accurate.

Perhaps the earliest documented case of autism was that of Hugh Blair in 1747 (he was 39 at the time). Over the years other cases were identified, while many were misdiagnosed (frequently as infantile schizophrenia). In the 1940s, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger developed the foundation for the modern diagnosis of autism by laying out a clearer description of the disorder. Interestingly, Kanner was disturbed by how quickly the rate of diagnosis of new cases of autism rose after his paper was published. This was in the 1950s. Since then, of course, the diagnosis has been refined and subsequently broadened, resulting in the class of ASDs we are familiar with today. In many ways, the history of autism up to this point is not so different from the history of other debilitating disorders like schizophrenia in that it consists of slow acknowledgement of a unique set of symptoms, followed by attempts at classification and an increase in the number of diagnoses due to clearer diagnostic criteria.

How the story of autism plays out is yet to be seen. But as the debate over vaccines and other potential causes continues to smolder, science is plodding along attempting to develop animal models for the study of the disorder. Several genetic mutations have been associated with ASDs. Mutations in genes that encode for proteins involved in the healthy functioning of synapses, called neuroligins and neurexins, have been directly linked to ASD. The result has been that many now classify the disorder as a synaptopathy, or a disease that is primarily caused by synaptic dysfunction. This has also led to the development of neuroligin-3 knockout (KO) mice as a rodent model for ASD.

A study in this month’s issue of The Journal of Biological Chemistry goes a step further in determining exactly how mutations in neuroligin can result in synaptopathies. The group coerced cultured neurons to express neuroligin mutations, which caused the protein to be folded improperly after it was manufactured. Furthermore, the misfolded proteins were not sent from the cell body out to the limits of the neuron. Thus the dendrites had a dearth of the protein, a factor that could be at least partly responsible for the unhealthy synaptic function that occurs when the neuroligin gene is mutated.

Protein misfolding is a culprit in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease as well, among others. While this study is an important step toward understanding autism, there are many more questions to be answered about how dependent the disorder may be upon protein misfolding and what other factors may be contributing to its variety of symptoms. And unfortunately attempts at developing treatments for protein misfolding diseases have not yet met with much success. Regardless, this is a positive development in understanding ASDs, a task that remains important not just for their treatment but for quelling the anxiety of a public struggling to understand the troubling incidence of the disorder.

 

De Jaco, A., Lin, M., Dubi, N., Comoletti, D., Miller, M., Camp, S., Ellisman, M., Butko, M., Tsien, R., & Taylor, P. (2010). Neuroligin Trafficking Deficiencies Arising from Mutations in the / -Hydrolase Fold Protein Family Journal of Biological Chemistry, 285 (37), 28674-28682 DOI:10.1074/jbc.M110.139519

YOUR BRAIN, EXPLAINED

Sleep. Memory. Pleasure. Fear. Language. We experience these things every day, but how do our brains create them? Your Brain, Explained is a personal tour around your gray matter. Building on neuroscientist Marc Dingman’s popular YouTube series, 2-Minute Neuroscience, this is a friendly, engaging introduction to the human brain and its quirks using real-life examples and Dingman’s own, hand-drawn illustrations.

  • ...a highly readable and accessible introduction to the operation of the brain and current issues in neuroscience... a wonderful introduction to the field. - Frank Amthor, PhD, Professor of Psychology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, author, Neuroscience for Dummies

  • Reading like a collection of detective stories, Your Brain, Explained combines classic cases in the history of neurology with findings stemming from the latest techniques used to probe the brain’s secrets. - Stanley Finger, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University (St. Louis), author, Origins of Neuroscience

  • An informative, accessible and engaging book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in how the brain works, but doesn’t know where to begin. - Dean Burnett, PhD, author, Happy Brain and Idiot Brain

  • Dingman weaves classic studies with modern research into easily digestible sections, to provide an excellent primer on the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience. - Moheb Costandi, author, Neuroplasticity and 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know

BIZARRE

This book shows a whole other side of how brains work by examining the most unusual behavior to emerge from the human brain. In it, you'll meet a woman who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain, a man who is convinced he is a cat, a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes, and many other unusual cases. As uncommon as they are, each of these cases has something important to teach us about everyday brain function.

  • Through case studies of both exceptional people as well as those with disorders, Bizarre takes us on a fascinating journey in which we learn more about what is going on in our skull. - William J. Ray, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, author, Abnormal Psychology

  • A unique combination of storytelling and scientific explanation that appeals to the brain novice, the trained neuroscientist, and everyone in between. Dingman explores some of the most fascinating and mysterious expressions of human behavior in a style that is case study, dramatic novel, and introductory textbook all rolled into one. - Alison Kreisler, PhD, Neuroscience Instructor, California State University, San Marcos

  • Bizarre is a collection of stories of how the brain can create zombies, cult members, extra limbs, instant musicians, and overnight accents, to name a few of the mind-scratching cases. After reading this book, you will walk away with a greater appreciation for this bizarre organ. If you are a fan of Oliver Sacks' books, you're certain to be a fan of Dingman's Bizarre. - Allison M. Wilck, PhD, Researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology, Eastern Mennonite University

  • Dingman brings the history of neuroscience back to life and weaves in contemporary ideas seamlessly. Readers will come along for the ride of a really interesting read and accidentally learn some neuroscience along the way. - Erin Kirschmann, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Immaculata University