Stem cell reprogramming allows scientists to model autism development

The greater understanding of abnormal cell growth in the development of autism may lead to treatments for the condition, researchers say.
By Stephen Feller  |  July 8, 2016 at 9:44 AM
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LA JOLLA, Calif., July 8 (UPI) -- Researchers have modeled the development of neurons in some autism patients, offering what they say is a new understanding of the condition.

Neuron precursor cells from autistic patients multiplied faster in lab experiments than cells from neurotypical people, which researchers at the Salk Institute say supports a theory that abnormal brain growth may play a role in the development of autism.

The researchers say their recent findings suggest modeling diseases with stem cells could improve understanding and identify potential treatments -- as may have been done in the new autism study.

For the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers created induced pluripotent stem cells based on skin samples from patients with autism whose brains had grown 23 percent faster than normal when they were toddlers.

The stem cells were then motivated to become neuron precursor cells and compared to similar stem cells developed from people without autism. The cells from autism patients behaved abnormally, displaying less activity than those from healthy people.

Activity between the cells improved when researchers added IGF-1, a growth promoting protein known to enhance connections between neurons.

Future research is expected to focus on how IGF-1 works to increase the connection between neurons, and what it may do for some autism patients.

"This technology allows us to generate views of neuron development that have historically been intractable," Dr. Rusty Gage, a professor in Salk's Laboratory of Genetics, said in a press release. "We're excited by the possibility of using stem cell methods to unravel the biology of autism and to possibly screen for new drug treatments for this debilitating disorder."

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