Researchers at UCLA have discovered how an autism-risk gene rewires the brain, which could pave the way for treatments aimed at rebalancing brain circuits during early development. Dr. Geschwind and team examined the variations in brain function and connectivity resulting from two forms of the CNTNAP2 gene - one form of the gene increases the risk of autism. The researchers suspected that CNTNAP2 might have an important impact on brain activity. They used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to scan 32 children's brains while they were performing tasks related to learning. Only 16 of them had autism.
The imaging results confirmed their suspicions. All the children with the autism-risk gene showed a disjointed brain, regardless of their diagnosis. Their frontal lobe was over-connected to itself, while connection to the rest of the brain was poor, especially with the back of the brain. There was also a difference between how the left and right sides of the brain connected with each other, depending on which CNTNAP2 version the child carried.
The authors believe their findings could help identify autism risk earlier, and eventually lead to interventions that could enhance connections between the frontal lobe and the left side of the brain.