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Abnormal sense of touch may play role in autism

In mice, mutations in autism-related genes in skin nerve cells linked to anxiety, poor social skills

12:18pm, June 9, 2016
diagrams of mouse paths

AROUND AND AROUND  Compared with normal mice, mice that carried a mutated form of the autism-related Mecp2 gene in their peripheral nerve cells avoided the center of an enclosure, a sign of anxiety. 

Most people think that autism is a disorder of the brain. But the skin may play a role, too, a new study suggests.

Nerve cells in the skin are abnormal in mice with mutations in autism-related genes, leading to poor touch perception, scientists report June 9 in Cell. This trouble sensing touch may influence the developing brain in a way that leads to social deficits and anxiety later in life.

The results raise the provocative idea that fixing abnormal senses may alleviate some of the behavioral symptoms of autism, says study coauthor David Ginty, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

To explore the role of touch, Ginty and colleagues used mice that carried mutations in genes linked to autism. The genes are active in many places, including the brain. But the researchers used genetic tricks to place the mutated genes only in the peripheral nervous system — the collections of nerves

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