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UNH researchers find new clues to development of autism

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire say they may have found a clue to the mystery of why autism is four times more common in boys than in girls.

Autism is thought to be caused by genetic mutations or variations in genes associated with development of the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health, as proteins produced under the direction of the genes affect multiple aspects of brain development.

But in a recently published study, UNH researchers found that certain proteins associated with autism in the brains of female mice are more regulated than in male mice. They believe that could also be the case in humans — and that protein regulation could be playing an important role.

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The protein regulation “could prevent autism from progressing in girls, but not in boys,” said Xuanmao Chen, an assistant professor of neurobiology at UNH and one of the study’s researchers.

The study looked at protein phosphorylation, a process where phosphates attach to proteins to regulate them, and how it may display sexual dimorphism, or be different in different sexes, Chen said.

What the researchers found excited them, Chen said. They found 204 proteins in female mouse brains that were more highly regulated than in male mouse brains, and of those proteins, 31 percent were associated with autism.

Evolution could be the reason why proteins behave differently based on sex, the researchers said in a statement earlier this month, because of how the female role has traditionally been centered on caretaking, forcing them to multitask, while men traditionally do more focused tasks, such as hunting and gathering.

“You can see this highly focused trait in autistic males who are very smart but tend to be fixated on one thing and not interested in, or cannot handle, other social interactions,” researchers said.

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These findings could help determine new research directions for autism or possible new treatments, Chen said. However, the study is also important for another reason, he said.

“Other studies have looked at the genetic level, but this is the first time a study has looked at the protein regulation level and how this could be affecting changes,” Chen said.

Chen said the research is still in an early stage and more research needs to be done to further observe the differences between the female and male brain in connection with autism.


Breanne Kovatch can be reached at breanne.kovatch@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @breannekovatch.