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New research examines link between cerebellum and autism

Injury to the cerebellum could further our understanding of autism, according to new research by molecular biology professor Samuel Wang.

Using the preexisting anatomical and clinical work from the last five to 10 years, Wang’s new idea merges much of the scientific literature exploring a connection between damage to the cerebellum and autism.

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“Brain development requires internal communication within the brain, and what we suggest is that that internal communication gets disrupted in cases that lead to autism,”Wang said.

His research is different from previous research that links the cerebellum to autism because he introduces the concept of sensitive periods.

“The sensitive period idea is like this: If you learn a language before the age of six, you speak like a native. If you learn between six and puberty, you can have grammar like a native, but you will have an accent. If you learn after puberty, it is very hard to speak and sound like a native,” Wang explained, relating the sensitive period to the earliest stage of development.

During these critical periods of development, it is easy for the brain to acquire new knowledge. During other periods, it is more difficult for the brain to learn.

“We took existing evidence and combined it with the existing evidence of sensitive periods to come up with a hypothesis for how it is that autism could come about in children with normal experience,” Wang said, “because the big puzzle of autism is that these children are brought up in normal, loving homes and get normal care, yet something goes off-track. And what we suggest is that even though they are having normal experience, internal brain communication is disrupted, so it is like being isolated socially.”

Wang hypothesized that during these sensitive periods, dysfunction in the cerebellum could possibly lead to abnormalities in other parts of the brain and result in social and cognitive problems.

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“It is innovative … a testable hypothesis, and it has important implications for the clinical understanding of autism and other neurological disorders,” Mustafa Sahin, a neurologist at Boston's Children Hospital and associate neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, said.

The research Wang produced does not suggest that injury to the cerebellum directly causes autism.

“There’s something going in the press both over at The Daily Beast and also U.K. Daily Mail suggesting that we think brain injury or injury to the cerebellum causes autism. And that is not true; we don’t think that,” Wang said. “What we think is that cases of brain injury give us a clue about the biology of all autism, but we do not think that cerebellum injury is the cause of autism.”

Wang’s paper, titled "The cerebellum, sensitive periods and autism," was published on Aug. 6inNeuron.

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