Autism-Linked Proteins Help Guide Brain Cells

Mar. 23 --

WEDNESDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. researchers say they've gained important insights into two brain cell proteins with links to autism.

The proteins, called neuroligin-1 and neuroligin-2, help strengthen and balance nerve cell connections, says a team at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

One of the proteins increases the excitability of nerve cells, while the other inhibits cell activity, the researchers found, and the proteins' effects are dependent on how often nerve cells fire.

"Mutations in these proteins have recently been linked to certain varieties of autism. This work provides clear insight into how the proteins function. We can never design a therapeutic strategy without knowing what these mutations do," Dr. Ege Kavalali, associate professor of neuroscience and physiology at UT Southwestern, said in a prepared statement.

The results of this study -- involving the manipulation of rat neurons in culture -- support the theory that autism is an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory nerve connections, Kavalali said.

The two proteins, which link nerve cells together, were identified more than a decade ago, but their function wasn't known, said the researchers, whose findings were published in the June 21 issue of the journal Neuron.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

SOURCE: UT Southwestern Medical Center, news release, June 20, 2007