Autism is not a single condition, but a spectrum of disorders that affect the brain's ability to perceive and process information. Recent research suggests that too many connections in the brain could be at least partially responsible for the symptoms of autism, from communication deficits to unusual talents. New research from the University of Maryland (UMD) suggests that this overload of connections begins early in mammalian development, when key neurons in the brain region known as the cerebral cortex begin to form their first circuits. By pinpointing where and when autism-related neural defects first emerge in mice, the study results could lead to a stronger understanding of autism in humans--including possible early intervention strategies. The researchers outline their findings in a research paper published online on January 31, 2017 in the journal Cell Reports. The article is titled “Abnormal Development of the Earliest Cortical Circuits in a Mouse Model of Autism Spectrum Disorder.” "Our work suggests that the neural pathology of autism manifests in the earliest cortical circuits, formed by a cell type called subplate neurons," said UMD Biology Professor and senior study author Patrick Kanold, Ph.D. "Nobody has looked at developing circuits this early, in this level of detail, in the context of autism before. This is truly a new discovery and potentially represents a new paradigm for autism research." Subplate neurons form the first connections in the developing cerebral cortex--the outer part of the mammalian brain that controls perception, memory, and, in humans, higher functions such as language and abstract reasoning. As the brain develops, the interconnected subplate neurons build a network of scaffolding believed to support other neurons that grow later in development.
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