Disrupted cortical development implicated in autism?

5 02 2015

Alexandra, Maria and I went to a seminar yesterday (‘Early Genetic and Environmental Perturbations Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder’) given by a post-doctoral fellow from the terribly-named Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto: Denis Gallagher.

Gallagher did a good job of explaining potential genetic and cellular risk factors at work when cortical developmental goes wrong. Though his rodent models seemed weak to me (I’m not convinced that barbering models a feature of autism, nor that one can really spot a ‘schizophrenic mouse’), it was fascinating to hear that maternal infections when pregnant (e.g. flu) are a risk factor for autism. (Maybe the awful ‘refrigerator mother‘ idea of the 50s was based on a typo: someone was trying to say the mothers of autistic kids HAD colds, not WERE cold…).

Gallagher then presented evidence of a possible cause: interactions between IL-6 and the ‘radial precursor cells’ involved in the earliest development of cortical layers.

research0301-big-eI had simply no idea how cortical layers develop (it’s impossible to keep up with all basic biology once you stop being a student), and found his diagrams of soon-to-be-neurons swarming up the radial precursor cells like little ladders (see figure to the right stolen from the Riken Institute) really quite mesmerizing.