How Stem Cell Reprogramming Is Helping People With Autism

Autism is a disorder that affects millions around the world. Some of these individuals are so because their brains grow faster than average during the early stages of life. More often than not, this occurs before diagnosis. Fortunately, a group of scientists have studied how stem cell technology can help unravel what is causing the excess growth.

The study was made by scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a privately held, non-profit research organization.

As News Medical explains, the study focuses on how available techniques involving stem cell reprogramming helps shape the model for the early stages of autism spectrum disorder. Theoretically, these models should help design or evaluate potential therapeutic drugs.

In the study, it was found that stem cell-derived neurons actually made fewer connections in the dish when compared to cells that were taken from healthy individuals. Restoration of communication between the cells was also possible through the addition of IGF-1. Currently, IGF-1 is still in its clinical trials with regards to the effects on autism.

Senior Investigator Rusty Gage is part of the group who conducted the study. He is also a professor at Salk's Laboratory of Genetics. Gage, along with the other Salk scientists, created stem cells from a group of individuals with autism, whose brains had already grown 23% faster than average during toddler years, but had slowed to normal as they grew up.

Science Daily notes that what is exciting about the study is that it allows scientists to observe neuron development for the first time. Correspondingly, it could lead to the development of treatment methods. "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," says Gage.

This is not the first time that Gage is successfully making headlines through the use of a dish. In 2010, he was joined by Carol Marchetto of Salk's Laboratory of Genetics, Alysson Muotri of the University of California, San Diego and other collaborators. Together, they were able to recreate features specific to Rett syndrome, which is a disorder that shares aspects with autism.

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