Children with Autism Have Extra Synapses in Brain

Aug 26, 2014

By Columbia University Medical Center


Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development, according to a study by neuroscientists at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). Because synapses are the points where neurons connect and communicate with each other, the excessive synapses may have profound effects on how the brain functions. The study was published in the August 21 online issue of the journal Neuron.

A drug that restores normal synaptic pruning can improve autistic-like behaviors in mice, the researchers found, even when the drug is given after the behaviors have appeared.

“This is an important finding that could lead to a novel and much-needed therapeutic strategy for autism,” said Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, Lawrence C. Kolb Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at CUMC and director of New York State Psychiatric Institute, who was not involved in the study.

Although the drug, rapamycin, has side effects that may preclude its use in people with autism, “the fact that we can see changes in behavior suggests that autism may still be treatable after a child is diagnosed, if we can find a better drug,” said the study’s senior investigator, David Sulzer, PhD, professor of neurobiology in the Departments of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Pharmacology at CUMC.

During normal brain development, a burst of synapse formation occurs in infancy, particularly in the cortex, a region involved in autistic behaviors; pruning eliminates about half of these cortical synapses by late adolescence. Synapses are known to be affected by many genes linked to autism, and some researchers have hypothesized that people with autism may have more synapses.


Continue reading here.

15 comments on “Children with Autism Have Extra Synapses in Brain

  • Wow! This is a brilliant finding. It makes so much sense, but also adds a very tractable means by which therapies on several levels may be got to work.

    If the ethics around DS were bad, though, this could become very fraught at the subtler edges and with gene therapy prospects. There is a sweet spot here perhaps between Dr Leonard Hofstadter, Dr Sheldon Cooper and a very unhappy and scared person.

    Simon Baron Cohen’s question- “If we could remove the risk of Schizophrenia from mankind, should we?”

    Report abuse

  • As someone on the spectrum myself this makes a lot of sense, it explains sensory sensitivity, it explains the anxiety, inability to pin down emotional responses (there could be so many other factors) so many things make sense. Early days yet I suppose, but could save a lot of trauma and discomfort. And yes having reached adulthood okay I kind of like the way my brain works (or I’ve learned to make the most of it) so I agree with phil not sure how much you’d loose in the process of treatment or if you should try too hard. However having taught a lot of Aspy kids (and having one of my own) there are many difficulties and some are completely miserable some relief would help enormously, you’d only have to take the edge off a bit to make life far happier for everyone involved.

    Report abuse

  • Most of my friends have some mental quirk or other and I fit right in. I can’t identify the emotional “meanings” of some facial expressions. Most of them take me a while to figure out, but too slow to be of any use in social situations. (It seems my biggest error is mistaking an actual “come hither” expression for some kind of cross or annoyed thing…..sheesh…now they tell me….) I also can’t tie voices to people on the phone, though I’ve got the kids cracked now. This is all a bit of a bummer, but I take real pleasure in how my mind works otherwise….I could watch it for hours.

    One of my shizophrenic friends uses nicotine to modulate the the effects of his drugs. Its like he can dial up the creativity when needed, or wind back to get those papers marked.

    If we had conscious control, somehow, over these particular quirky but useful neural processes, that could actually work out pretty well.

    Report abuse

  • Hi Phil,

    I have some of the same issues in reading emotion, intentions etc. Of course as a high school teacher this can make things more complicated. I’ve seen some of the female staff at my school (not trying to sexist but the female members of my staff – mostly are far more accurately aware of exactly what is going on with these kids) walk into a situation that would have led to a confrontation and seen them diffuse it completely with a joke or acknowledgement that the kid is having a bad day etc. They are noticing a difference in mood that I just don’t see, but the evidence is there the kid two minutes latter is back on task, no fuss.

    I also have trouble putting faces to names to voices at first, they do come and then I don’t forget them but I’ve noticed that other teachers have their kids faces-names matched in a week or two and it takes me 4 or 5 and even then I’ll make mistakes. This makes behaviour management more difficult, so I concentrate on learning the difficult kids first. From a first reading of the article (and it’s probably early days so I’ll withhold total confidence) all of these experiences (and many others) make perfect sense, I’d imagine this leads to huge amounts of competing stimuli making it harder to be certain in certain situations.

    Where I think it has been useful is I tend to be less easily convinced of anything unless it is on solid ground, I know a lot of teachers who are too easily convinced that this data means this (when I can see a thousand other things immediately that can result in the same results that have not been factored in), I tend not to be easily swayed by emotion or trends, more willing to see obvious faults even though it is the prevailing dogma, this has lead to me developing my own programs in ICT’s (we were very much dominated by teaching ICT’s in support of other teachers at the schools classes instead of teaching fundamentals – I had a massive battle to get us back to teaching real – ICT’s). But I had to be willing to not go with the flow, as my aspy side seems to be comfortable (or outside the flow anyway) I was probably the guy that needed to be there to do it, so I wouldn’t trade it all in even if I could.

    Report abuse

  • @to Phil and Reckless.

    I’ve noticed many contributors to this site make reference to the fact that they have aspi tendencies. There are others that I strongly suspect feature on the autism continuum somewhere. ( I’d say about ten all up). This would be a very high proportion in any other context. There must be a correlation, be it lack of suggestibility or refusal to be swayed by the mob….something!

    Report abuse

  • I think you are right. I view myself as a beginner though. I only recently uncovered the extent of these deficits after having some tests. This was helpful and pointed me towards some workarounds. Intellectually I found it hugely useful to be a little neurologically off centre. I suddenly saw that my experience, the “facts” of my life, don’t automatically map onto those of others’. This is rather humbling. I don’t have big life lessons to impart, only a little jigsaw piece demanding other pieces for completion. Now I see the experiece-informed views of others similarly constrained. Its why elsewhere I have promoted the idea that we all should view ourselves as, at least, not normal and each with a deficit or two.

    Solipsism is a widespread problem corrected by an understanding of cognitive error and that my error isn’t necessarily yours.

    Report abuse

  • @Phil.

    It’s very interesting that you’re an actor ( I hope I’m right in saying that). I would have assumed it to be a very difficult line of work for someone with aspi tendencies. Obviously I’m wrong, though I do find it an interesting choice of career.

    Report abuse

  • I was long ago, through university and beyond, for ten years or so. (I now work in Eco-tech.) I realised acting would give me skills that I clearly lacked. I “got stuff” by needing to be a people watcher and recreate what I saw. I particulalrly learned to read body language. Much as I was getting out of it alas the audience was not…Finally my bank manager made my physics degree look more attractive.

    Report abuse

  • Hi Nitya,

    Yes I suspect as much myself. There are a number of factors that may contribute, one is that many on the spectrum because of their narrow focus (obsession my wife calls it with things: flying, building telescopes, computers, and many other narrow focused things) tends to make many of us fairly IT savy (bloody mindedness helps overcome ignorance).

    When I was religious I was full blown religious which ironically led to me seeing the hypocrisy more readily I think, made it easier for me to get out. I suspect the latter may be the case with many on this site. I was odd I suppose as a child at school, I always thought it was growing up Mormon but now I suspect it has at least as much to do with my Aspy side. However, the main factor I think is perhaps being quite different, having trouble reading emotion makes you less prone to group think (however much you might want to engage with groups), religion relies on people conforming to social cues, I for one just don’t pick up on many of them or don’t feel the same level of compulsion to fit in or am not picking up on others discomfort about me saying things they may not want to hear. Hence I’m outspoken, so I feel at home here.


    Report abuse

  • having trouble reading emotion makes you less prone to group think.

    Hi Reckless.

    I think that must be true. I might re-describe it as group feel first leading to group think. I completely lack the visceral certainty that others possess on some topics. Everything is to be proved or observed. All the time I see people responding differently to very similar stimuli (That was a takeaway from acting. Because we don’t know the backstory for a given individual, very rarely can we speak reliably of motives.) I don’t feel so inclined to take a side.

    My moral drivers seem clearly left of centre (mainly harms and fairness) but that may be a possibly be that right wing group concerns of loyalty are simply absent. ( I could see thar OCD components might pull someone right with a purity concern for reassuring order.)

    I suspect my fascination with neuro-psychology is to give me another handle on how we mammals work. The shock is that the processes may be simpler than we want to admit. It is though the cultural backstory that makes the widely varied richness we see. So many experiments in living and so many looking pretty darn viable.

    Report abuse

  • Hi Phil,
    we are it appears of one mind. Yes I see too many possibilities to feel very certain of anything. As a child I think this made it difficult for me to learn some things unless it was obvious it was the only way it could be. This was true with friendship groups as well, I couldn’t understand the rules, I was in retrospect fairly oblivious to various power plays, I didn’t accept group leader authority if I though they were wrong I just disagreed with them, tactically bad move for smooth social sailing I see now, but the price I paid in a bit of social exclusion has paid dividends in not being ties to the group in adulthood.

    Fortunately for me I had one very close friend who while not ASD was very bright and appreciated my encyclopaedic knowledge in some areas and interest in some other things, I also have an Aunt who was highly social (polar opposite to me) and looked right past my ASD and I learned a lot about getting on from both. I’d have been pretty lonely without them.

    Report abuse

  • 12
    Analisa says:

    Hi Phil,

    Do you think acting could be used effectively in therapy ? Its something i’ve constantly been thinking about, not just for individuals with aspi tendencies but in general for all who fall within the spectrum and who Dont have very severe motor issues.

    Report abuse

  • Darn, I nearly missed this…

    I agree in all respects to your comment. But, further, I think it would benefit us all. The act of taking anothers person’s shoes (and it really does come down to the physical as well) is generally therapeutic in many ways. My somewhat nerdy kids both got weekend drama classes and got stuff from it. I found as they did that people often do things for reason’s you hadn’t imagined. Offence-taking, the very motor of much dramatic narrative, is often mistake-making. Intuition even in the hands of the most well meaning can serve us ill, and it doesn’t hurt to be more analytical and therefore more considerate of the other.

    Report abuse

  • 14
    bendigeidfran says:

    I’ve been acting me for a while. It’s a hard act to follow.

    ‘The actor learns the lines laid low
    Committed to the heart
    And then upon the later stage
    Becomes the later part’

    Knowing when to stop pruning, is the hardest line. Because it isn’t there.

    Report abuse

  • He, my dark heart, unfathomable,
    And I, self-styled, actor,
    …We, step precisely and with perfect timing,
    Through the fleeting, endless entrance to our life.

    The rehearsals never stop for me.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.