What causes autism? Is there something physical that accounts for behavioral differences?
Researchers have grown brainlike cell bundles in a lab to show the biological differences of autistic brains. They chemically reprogrammed human stem cells into "organoids," small bundles of functional brain cells that mimic the developing brain. The organoids built with cells from autistic patients seem to be different from those built with cells from the patients' non-autistic family members, the team reported in Cell, as related in Science News (https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/bundles-cells-hint-biological-differences-autistic-brains).
The scientists found that the brainlike structures developed from cells extracted from autistic children demonstrated increased activity in genes that control brain-cell growth and development. If there was too much activity in one of these genes, there was an overproduction of a certain type of brain cell that suppresses the activity of other brain cells.
According to the researchers, "At an early stage of development, the miniature organs grown from autistic patients' stem cells also showed faster cell division rates than those grown from the cells of non-autistic relatives. Though the study was small, using cells from only four autistic patients and eight family members, the results may indicate common factors underlying autism."
Why is the study so important? Autism is invisible and poorly understood. It affects personal and professional relationships. People who can get appropriate medication and therapy and who have a good support system can manage to function, but many people do not have these advantages (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/adults-autism-are-left-navigate-jarring-world).
"Autism spectrum disorder," which may affect 1 in 68 children, includes a group of neurological disorders widely ranging in severity. Among them are problems in communication and social interaction, challenges with regulating emotions and repetitive or obsessive behaviors and interests. About half of the children who have an autism spectrum disorder are "high functioning," meaning they have average or above-average intelligence.
While the United States spends more than $400 million every year on autism research, most of it is either for genetics research to determine causes and cures or for studies on early diagnosis and intervention in children. Rarely are there studies on treatments for adults.
Accepted approaches for treating children with autism range from brief interventions for addressing specific challenges like recognizing facial expressions to comprehensive behavioral training programs that involve parents, teachers and peers. No drugs have been approved to treat the basic symptoms of autism in children or adults, but some people who are diagnosed with autism are on medications for conditions that can occur alongside autism, including depression, anxiety and irritability.