An MIT Professor Reversed Some Autism Symptoms in Mice

Turning on a certain gene lessened antisocial and repetitive behaviors.

Guoping Feng

Guoping Feng. Photo by Kent Dayton

Thanks to a new discovery, an MIT scientist may have made the first step toward finding a way to reverse autism.

Guoping Feng, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, seems to have reversed some autism symptoms in mice by turning on a gene called Shank3. An absence of the Shank3 gene is linked to autistic behavior in humans, and similar effects have previously been seen in mice.

In his study, Feng genetically engineered mice to go without the Shank3 gene during embryonic development, then turned it on a few months after birth. Though some autistic behaviors, such as anxiety and impaired coordination, remained, antisocial behavior and repetitive actions lessened. Turning the gene on even earlier, about 20 days after birth, also improved anxiety and coordination.

“This suggests that even in the adult brain we have profound plasticity to some degree,” Feng said in a statement. “There is more and more evidence showing that some of the defects are indeed reversible, giving hope that we can develop treatment for autistic patients in the future.”

Though the finding is encouraging, it’s best to keep optimism guarded for now. For one, there’s no guarantee the technique will work in humans, and more research is necessary to determine if it will. Second, only about 1 percent of humans with autism are missing the Shank3 gene, so it may not be a wide-reaching treatment even if the methods do transfer over.

Nonetheless, Feng says the discovery may open the door to developing more universal approaches to treating autism, like identifying and targeting the specific circuits that cause each patient’s behavioral gaps.

“It’s important in the future to identify what subtype of neurons are defective and what genes are expressed in these neurons,” Feng said in the statement, “so we can use them as a target without affecting the whole brain.”