A new understanding of autism

I’ve been interested in autism for a long time, particularly because many of the most creative artists and most ingenious computer programmers exhibit symptoms of borderline autism or Asperger syndrome.  According to the Daily Mail, scientists have discovered what may be behind both conditions.

Scientists say they have discovered the reason why some people suffer from autism.

Those with the condition have too many synapses in their brains – places where where neurons connect and communicate, a new study has found.

Scientists at Columbia University in New York believe that the surplus synapses are created because of a lack of ‘pruning’ that normally occurs early in life.

The discovery is a huge leap in understanding of the complex condition and creates hope of a possible treatment, researchers said.

In mice with autistic traits, scientists were able to restore the synaptic pruning and reduce symptoms.

. . .

Professor Jeffrey Lieberman, chair of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, where the research took place, said: ‘This is an important finding that could lead to a novel and much-needed therapeutic strategy for autism.’

There’s more at the link.

If the report is correct, this may be the breakthrough many people have been longing for in the treatment of this condition.  Autism has a high correlation with creativity, even genius.  If its negative elements can be treated, its positives can be accentuated, to the huge benefit of those suffering from it and potentially the benefit of all of us.  Kudos to all concerned.



  1. Peter,
    I suspect that you are being overly positive in your thinking that they can target this pruning effect on specific areas.
    I suspect that the autistic brain has a variable distribution of these un-pruned synapses, from one person to another. Two thoughts occur on this. Are there specific areas that lead to the overwhelming sensory input that is thought to be a big part of the problem with autism? And, what effect on the mental abilities would be manifested if an overall pruning job was done?

    Most likely, they will eventually discover that the difference between Asperger's and autism is the amount of extra synapses, along with where they are congregated. That combo could make it very difficult to treat effectively. If they can get this to work at all, I predict that the end result will be people who will feel like they have been wrapped in cotton, with a huge reduction in IQ. The persons age when this pruning is applied will have a large bearing on the outcome.

  2. This is a great example of Gell-Mann amnesia – issues with synaptic pruning have been demonstrated in autism for more than a decade. What the Columbia group did that *might* be useful is use rapamycin to reverse some of those symptoms in mice, which isn't exactly high quality evidence (it can be difficult to extrapolate from mouse behaviour and social interaction to humans). It's also only one of the many 'miraculous' effects demonstrated in single trials for rapamycin, a relatively new and very expensive drug whose manufacturer has pushed it for everything from lifespan extension to tuberous sclerosis to SLE – all ideal because there aren't any great treatments out there to compete with.

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