DALLAS June 20, 2007 -- Two proteins that are implicated in autism have been found to control the strength and balance of nerve-cell connections, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found.
The proteins, which serve to physically link nerve cells together, were discovered more than a decade ago by UT Southwestern scientists, but their function has been unclear.
In the new study, which appears in the June 21 edition of the journal Neuron, the researchers found that one protein increases the excitability of nerve cells, while the other inhibits cell activity. Most importantly, these effects depended on how often the cells fired.
The activity levels of neurons play a vital role during normal brain development in children. Active connections become stronger and survive to adulthood, while inactive ones disappear.
Autism is believed to involve an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory nerve connections, a theory supported by this study, said Dr. Ege Kavalali, associate professor of neuroscience and physiology at UT Southwestern and an author of the paper.
Mutations in these proteins have recently been linked to certain varieties of autism, Dr. Kavalali said. This work provides clear insight into how the proteins function. We can never design a therapeutic strategy without knowing what these mutations do.
The proteins are called neuroligin-1 and neuroligin-2. At the junction of two nerve cells, called a synapse, the proteins stick out from the surface of the cell that receives a signal from the first cell. The neuroligins bind to other molecules on the first cell, thus creating a physical bridge across the synapse.
In some cases, a signal from the first cell excites the second cell, while at other synapses, the signal inhibits the second cell.
Infants are born with far more synapses, both excitatory and inhibitory, than adults end up with. In a process called
Contact: Aline McKenzie
UT Southwestern Medical Center