Motor Coordination Issues Due to Abnormal Neuron Connections

motor skillsAccording to researchers, motor coordination issues in individuals with autism disorders may be due to abnormal connections between neurons. Scientists from the University of Chicago identified malfunctions in the neural circuit associated with reduced capacity for motor learning. Individuals with autism are known to struggle with various motor skills, such as sitting still, having balance, and holding eye contact.

Dr. Christian Hansel, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago states, “We have identified synaptic abnormalities that may play a role in motor problems typically seen in children with autism.” He continues, “Autism is sometimes described as intense world syndrome – too many, too strong excitatory connections that lead to enhanced sensory input. The results of our study might shed light on this phenomenon”.

To analyze how motor issues may arise in individuals on the spectrum, Dr. Hansel and his team created autistic mouse models, implementing them one of the most common genetic abnormalities in autism, the chromosomal duplication 15q11-13. They then studied the cerebellum, which is heavily involved in motor capabilities. The team found that the autistic model mice demonstrated motor deficits by having impaired learning.

In their study, Dr. Hansel and his team taught normal mice to associate a short light signal with a puff of air to the eye. Quite rapidly, the neurotypical mice began to blink in response to the light, even with the absence of the air puff, signaling they know of the association to one another. However, the autistic mice were much slower to pick up on this, and made mistakes more often.

To analyze why the autistic mice models had slower physical responses, Dr. Hansel and his colleagues studied Purkinje cells, neurons heavily involved in motor learning. These cells can affect the sites of connection between neurons where signals are passed, becoming one of the primary mechanisms for learning and memory. In the autistic mice, the ability of Purkinje cells to depress the efficiency of their synapses was significantly reduced, limiting their ability to participate in motor learning. Dr. Hansel states that a likely cause is impaired synaptic pruning, a process that enables the trimming of unneeded synapses.

Dr. Hansel adds, “Inefficient synaptic pruning seems to be a common motif in autism.” He continues, “A direct link between synaptic studies and behavioral output is almost impossible to do with social behaviors, but we can now accomplish this. This is due to the relative simplicity of the motor system, and because the cerebellum is evolutionarily conserved, allowing for comparisons between mice and man.”


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