Normal Brain Development
During normal brain development, there is an explosive increase in the number of cells – neurons – formed. There is also an explosion in the number of connections between those neurons – synapses, formed by “dendritic spines” – during normal brain development.
At first, the connections seem random. It’s every neuron for themselves. It seems, the more, the better. But then, at some time during childhood, a pruning process begins. The connections become refined. Less-used connections are dropped in favor of more meaningful connections. The spines are pruned.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
There are recent hints that Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) due to the continuum of symptom severity, may be the result of too many connections: too many neuronal “spines.” That is, a lack of pruning.
The laboratory of Dr. Patricia Maness, of UNC School of Medicine, has discovered that one of the genes involved in the pruning process may be involved in ASD. “When it doesn’t prune, we get too many synapses,” said Dr. Maness.
There have been recent neuro-anatomic reports suggesting a correlation between too many neuronal spines and human ASD.
Whereas Dr. Maness emphasizes caution, “… this is by no means a cure for autism … this is a first step,” this discovery is promising.
Because ASD is multi-factorial, meaning there are many genes involved (at least 100), and because many potential environmental factors (pesticides and other toxins), her cautions are well founded.
On the other hand, any step toward better understanding this tragic disorder is welcome.
For some insight from a truly integrative physician, read Mark Hyman’s view on Autism (Dr. Hyman is founder of the Institute for Functional Medicine): http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/12/09/breakthrough-discovery-on-the-causes-of-autism/#openModal
Here is a great resource for those dealing with ASD:
Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog. That wonderful photo of me is by Chris Stranad; here is his site: http://www.chrisstranadphotography.com/Index.html
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