HKUST brain study offers hope for treating autism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 4:33am

Researchers at University of Science and Technology have made a breakthrough in the study of the brain, with potential implications for the treatment of conditions such as autism and Parkinson's disease.

Led by the university's Dean of Science Professor Nancy Ip, the team of neuroscientists demonstrated that the size of the brain's cerebral cortex - which controls mental functions such as language, consciousness and abstract thought - can be expanded by increasing production of the brains' neurons.

The team identified a protein, Axin, that plays a key role in the production of neurons and which can be increased by specific chemicals.

Although the researchers are testing only on mice, they believe the discovery will be applicable to stem-cell therapy and that they will be able to test whether developmental disorders can be treated by varying the number of neurons in the brain.

Developmental disorders can be caused by the brain having an abnormal number of neurons when it is formed.

Recent scientific evidence suggests autism is strongly associated with overproduction of neurons. The study showed the increased production of neurons was associated with autistic behaviour in mice.

According to Ip, the discovery is also relevant to people suffering from Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.

"Understanding the mechanism that controls the production of brain cells also has relevance to other diseases, for example neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's," she said. "It is because there is a loss of neurons, so you want to generate more neurons in this case.

"[In that case], we could manipulate the Axin pathway so that if we activate it, it will result in an increased number of neurons."

The team hopes to test the theory on humans in 10 years and eventually manufacture drugs to control the level of neurons.