Stem Cells and Autism

There is still much we do not know about how autism develops, which makes it more challenging to find new treatments and ways of addressing the disorder. Recently, however, stem cells have shown promise in helping safely develop treatments for autism.

What is Autism?

Autism is a disorder that relates to a person’s neural development. Its classic symptoms include abnormal social interaction and difficulties with normal communication. Behaviours shown by autistic children, for instance, may be antisocial ones.

It is thought that autism interferes with normal information processing because it changes the way that a person’s nerve cells communicate. We still don’t know exactly how and why this occurs although there are numerous links.

What Causes Autism?

It is believed that there is a strong genetic basis for autism although other factors are also suggested to play a role. These include environmental causes or exposure of the mother to toxins.

With the number of people diagnosed with autism continuing to rise, there is more attention being given to the disorder and how we can help those who are diagnosed with autism while preventing its occurrence in the first place.

Using Stem Cells to Study Autism

More recently, studies have focused on better ways to learn about autism. By using stem cells, they have been able to engineer neurons in a way that we now have a human cellular model. This model is a safe way to study how autism develops in the brain.

Rett Syndrome Patients

Researchers obtained the stem cells from adults who have Rett syndrome, which shows similarities to autism and is a major developmental disorder. Given that Rett syndrome is such an extreme case, researchers thought it was ideal to study autism. If they were able to understand what happens with Rett syndrome, they could better understand other developmental disorders such as autism.

Stem Cells for Safer Testing

The benefit of a cell model like this one is that it’s a safe way to test out drugs and other therapies to see if they can provide any potential benefits for people with autism. While it’s common to test on animals, in a disorder such as autism, there are additional challenges.

With something like autism, much of the diagnosis of the disorder comes from behavioural manifestations. In this sense, it is difficult because we can’t see the dysfunctional social interactions and problems with communication that are characteristic of autism.

Without animal testing first, it would mean doing any drug testing in humans, which is significantly more dangerous. The key benefit with the cell model is that we avoid these risks.

Positive Results With Stem Cells

Researchers treated the stem cells and triggered them to differentiate into neurons, but found these neurons had abnormalities we would not see in a neuron from a healthy person. These neurons were smaller and didn’t have the normal number of synapses, which are important for neurons to communicate. When these cells were treated with drugs that help autism symptoms in mice, however, these abnormalities were reversed.

Finding Better Treatments Using Stem Cells

While the study results do not completely prove it will work the same in humans, results are promising and do suggest the neurons can benefit. This use of stem cells as a safer model for testing will also help us perform similar testing for other diseases, giving hope to people with autism or other developmental disorders.

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