Numerous genes have been linked to autism, but it is not entirely clear how mutations in individual genes translate to the social deficits seen in people with the disorder. Because the symptoms of autism typically appear during periods of heavy neural development, Mriganka Sur at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that defects in genes that control early brain development are partly to blame.
Sur aims to identify and assess the role of autism-linked genes responsible for dividing the cortex into various processing areas. He also plans to examine genes involved in synaptic plasticity, a quality that allows neuronal connections to adapt during learning, memory and other processes.
Information on genes that influence neural activity in various areas of the cortex may be useful in understanding the exact cause of the deficits in social cognition seen in individuals with autism. The findings may lead to better animal models of autism — and eventually to the development of diagnostic tools and interventions.