Deleting a single gene in the cerebellum of mice can cause key autistic-like symptoms, researchers have found. They also discovered that rapamycin, a commonly used immunosuppressant drug, prevented these symptoms.

The deleted gene is associated with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC), a rare genetic condition. Since nearly 50 percent of all people with TSC develop autism, the researchers believe their findings will help us better understand the condition’s development.

“We are trying to find out if there are specific circuits in the brain that lead to autism-spectrum disorders in people with TSC,” said Mustafa Sahin, Harvard Medical School associate professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital and senior author on the paper. “And knowing that deleting the genes associated with TSC in the cerebellum leads to autistic symptoms is a vital step in figuring out that circuitry.”

This is the first time researchers have identified a molecular component for the cerebellum’s role in autism. “What is so remarkable is that loss of this gene in a particular cell type in the cerebellum was sufficient to cause the autistic-like behaviors,” said Peter Tsai, HMS instructor of neurology and the first author of this particular study.

These findings were published online July 1 in Nature.

TSC is a genetic disease caused by mutations in either one of two genes, TSC1 and TSC2. Patients develop benign tumors in various organs in the body, including the brain, kidneys and heart, and often suffer from seizures, delayed development and behavioral problems.

Researchers have known that there was a link between TSC genes and autism, and have even identified the cerebellum as the key area where autism and related conditions develop.

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