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August 2019 (Vol. 4 Issue 6)

Not all in the head: autism could be a disorder of our peripheral nerves
About the author: 
Bryan Hubbard

Not all in the head: autism could be a disorder of our peripheral nerves image

Autism is seen as a developmental problem that’s centred in the brain—but new research suggests it could also be found in the peripheral nerves in the limbs and fingers.

The theory supports some aspects of the autistic experience, which includes the way touch is perceived, anxiety and social abnormalities, say researchers from Harvard Medical School.

“An underlying assumption has been that ASD (autism spectrum disorders) is solely a disease of the brain, but we’ve found that may not always be the case”, said lead researcher David Ginty, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard.

It could also be the result of genetic mutations that affect cells essential for the healthy functioning of our nerves, and especially those found in our extremities that send messages back to the brain.

These mutations cause an over-reaction when we are touched; as one of the researchers put it, the nerves’ ‘volume switch’ is turned to maximum all the time, causing an over-reaction to even the lightest touch. This could also be a cause of anxiety, another symptom of autism.

Their theories are based solely on experiments on laboratory mice at the moment, but the researchers are confident they would see similar defects in human subjects.


References

(Source: Cell, 2016; doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.05.033)

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