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Unusual Neural Network Activity Could Be an Underlying Cause of Autism

🕑 2 minutes read
Posted June 14, 2013

They say that neurons that fire together wire together. A research team at UCLA has observed unusually hyperactive clusters of neurons firing together in juvenile mice that have a genetic abnormality resembling that of the one that causes the symptoms of autism and other disorders in humans. This discovery could help to explain some of the issues that people experience because of autism spectrum disorders.

The brain is able to function the way it does because various groups of neurons are able to fire independently or in particular groupings. Because of this neuroplasticity, humans are able to have brains that are able to manage all manner of tasks. However, the brain’s neurons do not start out as independently functioning pieces; while in utero, all the neurons fire simultaneously, but sometime before birth, the brain “de-synchronizes” and is able to allot variable amounts of neural activity for a variety of tasks.

However, in the mice that the UCLA researchers observed, there was a high degree of neural synchronicity as well as hyperactivity, even when the mice were sleeping. During sleep, neurons should not be firing at such high rates, but rather the brain should be working to consolidate memory, which allows the mouse (or human) to develop his or her cognition, behavioral skills, and more.

The mice who displayed this neural hyperactivity were also  anti-social. For example, if a new mouse was introduced to the environment, they did not approach it as a wild mouse would.

This research is important because it is a piece of the puzzle of understanding the neurobiological causes of autism. The study indicates that part of the root of many characteristic autistic behaviors is that neurons are “over-wired,” making some par

ts of the brain overly sensitive, while not creating enough of a connection with other parts of the brain.

Although there is still a lot of research to be done in definitively linking autism and hyperactive neural networks, it does add to understanding of how autism may affect the brain. These findings may also benefit research in treatments for people with autism.

This research was published last week in Nature Neuroscience.

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