Another puzzle piece in the autism mystery

Just like in the case of schizophrenia, hundreds of genes have been associated with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs). Here is another candidate.

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Féron et al. (2016) reasoned that most of the info we have about the genes that are behaving badly in ASDs comes from studies that used adult cells. Because ASDs are present before or very shortly after birth, they figured that looking for genetic abnormalities in cells that are at the very early stage of ontogenesis might prove to be enlightening. Those cells are stem cells. Of the pluripotent kind. FYI, based on what they can become (a.k.a how potent they are), the stem cells are divided into omipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent, and unipotent. So the pluripotents are very ‘potent’ indeed, having the potential of producing a perfect person.

Tongue-twisters aside, the authors’ approach is sensible, albeit non-hypothesis driven. Which means they hadn’t had anything specific in mind when they had started looking for differences in gene expression between the olfactory nasal cells obtained from 11 adult ASDs sufferers and 11 age-matched normal controls. Luckily for them, as transcriptome studies have a tendency to be difficult to replicate, they found the anomalies in the expression of genes that have been already associated with ASD. But, they also found a new one, the MOCOS (MOlybdenum COfactor Sulfurase) gene, which was poorly expressed in ASDs (downregulated, in genetic speak). The enzyme is MOCOS (am I the only one who thinks that MOCOS isolated from nasal cells is too similar to mucus? is the acronym actually a backronym?).

The enzyme is not known to play any role in the nervous system. Therefore, the researchers looked to see where the gene is expressed. Its enzyme could be found all over the brain of both mouse and human. Also, in the intestine, kidneys, and liver. So not much help there.

Next, the authors deleted this gene in a worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and they found out that the worm’s cells have issues in dealing with oxidative stress (e.g. the toxic effects of free radicals). In addition, their neurons had abnormal synaptic transmission due to problems with vesicular packaging.

Then they managed – with great difficulty – to produce human induced pluripotent cells (iPSCs) in a Petri dish in which the gene MOCOS was partially knocked down. ‘Partially’, because the ‘totally’ did not survive. Which tells us that MOCOS is necessary for survival of iPSCs. The mutant cells had less synaptic buttons than the normal cells, meaning they formed less synapses.

The study, besides identifying a new candidate for diagnosis and treatment, offers some potential explanations for some beguiling data that other studies have brought forth, like the fact that all sorts of neurotransmitter systems seem to be impaired in ADSs, all sorts of brain regions, making very hard to grab the tiger by the tail if the tiger is sprouting a new tail when you look at it, just like the Hydra’s heads. But, discovering a molecule that is involved in an ubiquitous process like synapse formation may provide a way to leave the tiger’s tail(s) alone and focus on the teeth. In the authors’ words:

“As a molecule involved in the formation of dense core vesicles and, further down, neurotransmitter secretion, MOCOS seems to act on the container rather than the content, on the vehicle rather than one of the transported components” (p. 1123).

The knowledge uncovered by this paper makes a very good piece of the ASDs puzzle. Maybe not a corner, but a good edge. Alright, even if it’s not an edge, at least it’s a crucial piece full of details, not one of those sky pieces.

Reference: Féron F, Gepner B, Lacassagne E, Stephan D, Mesnage B, Blanchard MP, Boulanger N, Tardif C, Devèze A, Rousseau S, Suzuki K, Izpisua Belmonte JC, Khrestchatisky M, Nivet E, & Erard-Garcia M (Sep 2016, Epub 4 Aug 2016). Olfactory stem cells reveal MOCOS as a new player in autism spectrum disorders. Molecular Psychiatry, 21(9):1215-1224. PMID: 26239292, DOI: 10.1038/mp.2015.106. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 31 August 2016


THE FIRSTS: The Mirror Neurons (1988)

There are some neurons in the human brain that fire both when the person is doing some behavior and when watching that behavior performed by someone else. These cells are called mirror neurons and were first discovered in 1988 (see NOTE) by a group of researchers form the University of Parma, Italy, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti.

The discovery was done by accident. The researchers were investigating the activity of neurons in the rostral part of the inferior premotor cortex (riPM) of macaque monkeys with electrophysiological recordings. They placed a box in front of the monkey which had various objects in it. When the monkey pressed a switch, the content of the box was illuminated, then a door would open and the monkey reached for an object. Under each object was hidden a small piece of food. Several neurons were discharging when the animal was grasping the object. But the researchers noticed that some of these neurons ALSO fired when the monkey was motionless and watching the researcher grasping the objects!

The authors then did more motions to see when exactly the two neurons were firing, whether it’s related to the food or threatening gestures and so on. And then they recorded from some 182 more neurons while the monkey or the experimenter were performing hand actions with different objects. Importantly, they also did an electromyogram (EMG) and saw that when the neurons that were firing when the monkey was observing actions, the muscles did not move at all.

They found that some neurons responded to both when doing and seeing the actions, whereas some other neurons responded only when doing or only when seeing the actions. The neurons that are active when observing are called mirror neurons now. In 1996 they were identified also in humans with the help of positron emission tomography (PET).

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In yellow, the frontal region; in red, the parietal region. Credits: Brain diagram by Korbinian Brodmann under PD license; Tracing by Neuronicus under PD license; Area identification and color coding after Rizzolatti & Fabbri-Destro (2010) © Springer-Verlag 2009.

It is tragicomical that the authors first submitted their findings to the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, believing that their discovery is worth it, and rightfully so. But, Nature rejected their paper because of its “lack of general interest” (Rizzolatti & Fabbri-Destro, 2010)! Luckily for us, the editor of Experimental Brain Research, Otto Creutzfeld, did not share the Nature‘s opinion.

Thousands of experiments followed the tremendous discovery of mirror neurons, even trying to manipulate their activity. Many researchers believe that the activity of the mirror neurons is fundamental for understanding the intentions of others, the development of theory of mind, empathy, the process of socialization, language development and even human self-awareness.

NOTE: Whenever possible, I try to report both the date of the discovery and the date of publication. Sometimes, the two dates can differ quite a bit. In this case, the discovery was done in 1988 and the publishing in 1992.


  1. di Pellegrino G, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Gallese V, & Rizzolatti G (October 1992). Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Experimental Brain Research, 91(1):176-180. DOI: 10.1007/BF00230027. ARTICLE  | Research Gate FULLTEXT PDF
  2. Rizzolatti G & Fabbri-Destro M (Epub 18 Sept 2009; January 2010). Mirror neurons: From discovery to autism. Experimental Brain Research, 200(3): 223-237. DOI: 10.1007/s00221-009-2002-3. ARTICLE  | Research Gate FULLTEXT PDF 

By Neuronicus, 15 July 2016

Autism cure by gene therapy

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Nothing short of an autism cure is promised by this hot new research paper.

Among many thousands of proteins that a neuron needs to make in order to function properly there is one called SHANK3 made from the gene shank3. (Note the customary writing: by consensus, a gene’s name is written using small caps and italicized, whereas the protein’s name that results from that gene expression is written with caps).

This protein is important for the correct assembly of synapses and previous work has shown that if you delete its gene in mice they show autistic-like behavior. Similarly, some people with autism, but by far not all, have a deletion on Chromosome 22, where the protein’s gene is located.

The straightforward approach would be to restore the protein production into the adult autistic mouse and see what happens. Well, one problem with that is keeping the concentration of the protein at the optimum level, because if the mouse makes too much of it, then the mouse develops ADHD and bipolar.

So the researchers developed a really neat genetic model in which they managed to turn on and off the shank3 gene at will by giving the mouse a drug called tamoxifen (don’t take this drug for autism! Beside the fact that is not going to work because you’re not a genetically engineered mouse with a Cre-dependent genetic switch on your shank3, it is also very toxic and used only in some form of cancers when is believed that the benefits outweigh the horrible side effects).

In young adult mice, the turning on of the gene resulted in normalization of synapses in the striatum, a brain region heavily involved in autistic behaviors. The synapses were comparable to normal synapses in some aspects (from the looks, i.e. postsynaptic density scaffolding, to the works, i.e. electrophysiological properties) and even more so in others (more dendritic spines than normal, meaning more synapses, presumably). This molecular repair has been mirrored by some behavioral rescue: although these mice still had more anxiety and more coordination problems than the control mice, their social aversion and repetitive behaviors disappeared. And the really really cool part of all this is that this reversal of autistic behaviors was done in ADULT mice.

Now, when the researchers turned the gene on in 20 days old mice (which is, roughly, the equivalent of the entering the toddling stage in humans), all four behaviors were rescued: social aversion, repetitive, coordination, and anxiety. Which tells us two things: first, the younger you intervene, the more improvements you get and, second and equally important, in adult, while some circuits seem to be irreversibly developed in a certain way, some other neural pathways are still plastic enough as to be amenable to change.

Awesome, awesome, awesome. Even if only a very small portion of people with autism have this genetic problem (about 1%), even if autism spectrum disorders encompass such a variety of behavioral abnormalities, this research may spark hope for a whole range of targeted gene therapies.

Reference: Mei Y, Monteiro P, Zhou Y, Kim JA, Gao X, Fu Z, Feng G. (Epub 17 Feb 2016). Adult restoration of Shank3 expression rescues selective autistic-like phenotypes. Nature. doi: 10.1038/nature16971. Article | MIT press release

by Neuronicus, 19 February 2016