Protein found in brain cells may be key to autism

London: Scientists claim to have found evidence that a single protein triggers autism by stopping effective communication between brain cells, a finding which raises hope of the first effective drug treatments.

Autism is a disorder which, to varying degrees, affects the ability of children and adults to communicate and interact socially. While hundreds of genes linked to it have been found, the precise combination of genetics, biochemistry and environmental factors producing autism is still unclear.

Now, an international team led by Duke University has found `Shank3` protein plays a key role in triggering autistic spectrum disorders. The protein is found in the synapses — the junctions between brain cells (neurons).

The scientists have based their findings, published in the `Nature` journal, on an analysis on autistic mice. They created rodents which had a mutated form of Shank3, and found these animals avoided social interactions with other mice.

They also engaged in repetitious and self-injurious grooming behaviour.