Human brain nerves

Baby AutismOne out of every 68 children suffers from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition that for years scientists have believed originates inside the brain. A new study by Harvard Medical School researchers reveals experts may have been wrong all along, and that ASD may not involve just the brain, but the skin too. This makes sense since many of the symptoms people with autism experience involve issues with sensory processing, which makes them hypersensitive to various sensory stimuli — among them, touch.

"An underlying assumption has been that ASD is solely a disease of the brain, but we've found that may not always be the case, " said the study’s senior author David Ginty, a neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School, in a statement. "Advances in mouse genetics have made it possible for us to study genes linked to ASD by altering them only in certain types of nerve cells and studying the effects."

Many people with autism are often hypersensitive to light touches, a sign that indicates to experts that part of their disorder is tactile in nature. It’s often possible to calm a person whose sensory system is believed to be overstimulated by using deep pressure applied through hugs and heavy blankets. Knowing this, Ginty and his team tested how mice reacted to a light puff of air on their backs and how well they could differentiate various textures. Because certain gene mutations were related to ASD in humans, such as Mecp2 and Gabrb3, researchers found mice with the mutations were startled by the puffs of air, compared to normal mice. They were also unable to tell the difference between textures.

"Although we know about several genes associated with ASD, a challenge and a major goal has been to find where in the nervous system the problems occur, " Ginty said. "By engineering mice that have these mutations only in their peripheral sensory neurons, which detect light touch stimuli acting on the skin, we've shown that mutations there are both necessary and sufficient for creating mice with an abnormal hypersensitivity to touch."

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