Neurological Findings behind Autism: Astrocytes

astrocytes and autism

Looking out through the window of everyday life, autism research doesn’t feel like it affects us very much at all. To many people, scientific findings are difficult to truly analyze in-depth.

But we are living in an era of immensely significant breakthroughs which drive our understanding of autism.

In the 1990s, scientists found that as human brains develop, a non-neuronal cell called an astrocyte wedges itself between synapses and produces a protein called hevin.

In 2011, the purpose of hevin was finally discovered. This substance produces new and lasting neural connections in the brain.

Earlier in 2015, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to continue studying the role of astrocytes and hevin, which are abundant in all brains.

They discovered that hevin in the frontal cortex encourages more inputs from the thalamus, which contains sensory and motor information. At the same time, it discourages inputs from local neurons within the frontal cortex, which can impair cognitive functioning.  

In neurotypical brains, as the aging process continues, the number of synaptic connections lessens in order to make cognitive processes more effective. In brains with neurological disorders, including autism, the connections remain. It’s as if cortical and thalamus connections are in a turf war, competing to make connections. An imbalance between the two hinders normal development of the brain’s neurons, which may explain difficulty in motor skills and cognitive functions.

So what do these findings mean for us at home?

Simply said, the world is one step closer to uncovering the full truth of the developmental disorder that has always been a puzzle with not enough pieces. Yes, knowing the role of hevin and astrocytes can’t pay off the bills or feed our dogs. But, it’s useful information that can lead us to knowing how developmental diseases develop in the first place.

Research continues to be conducted on astrocytes. And while the findings don’t exactly change how we live day to day, we are one jigsaw piece closer to understanding the full picture of autism.

By Samantha Mallari

This entry was posted in Autism Action Alerts, Autism Advocacy, Autism Awareness, Autism Education, Autism News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 28, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    My younger sister dealt with migraines for a while as a child and she was taken to a neurological treatment center when she was 11 to find out the issue. It turned out that she had a form of autism, even though she was high functioning, and they were able to tell that from looking at her synaptic connections. Do those who have higher functioning autism have less connections that remain than those who function a lot less? I am just curious to know if there is a neurological reasoning for how impacting autism is on a person.

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