Scientists find big cause of sensory hypersensitivity in autism

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Researchers from the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea have made a significant discovery related to autism, a condition that affects about 1 in 36 people. Autism is known for the challenges it presents in social interaction and communication.

A less discussed but equally challenging aspect of autism is the sensory hypersensitivity experienced by approximately 90% of those diagnosed.

This means that everyday sensory inputs like sounds, lights, or touch can be overwhelming, leading to stress and making social interactions even more challenging.

In their quest to understand the root cause of this sensory hypersensitivity, the team, led by Directors Kim Eunjoon and Kim Seong-Gi, focused on a specific part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

The ACC is an area of the brain usually noted for its role in managing cognitive and emotional responses but hasn’t been studied as much in relation to sensory processing.

To conduct their research, the team studied mice that had a particular genetic mutation in the Grin2b gene, which is part of the makeup of NMDA receptors in the brain.

These receptors are vital for brain function, helping with the transmission of signals between nerve cells and playing a key role in how the brain adapts to new information.

Using advanced imaging techniques, the researchers observed that these genetically modified mice showed unusually high activity in the ACC when exposed to sensory stimuli.

This hyperactivity was unlike what was seen in typical mice, suggesting a link to the intense sensory reactions associated with autism.

In an intriguing part of the study, when researchers used a technique to reduce the activity in the ACC, the mice’s sensitivity to sensory input returned to normal levels.

This experiment showed that the ACC’s overactivity is a key player in the heightened sensory experiences associated with autism.

What makes this study stand out is its focus not just on the ACC but also on how this brain region interacts with other parts of the brain.

Previous research often looked at regions believed to handle sensory information directly, like those that process sights and sounds straight from the eyes and ears.

However, this study shows that the problem isn’t just with these sensory areas but also with how they connect and communicate with the ACC.

Looking forward, the team plans to explore exactly how and why these connections in the brain become overly active and how this leads to sensory hypersensitivity.

They suspect that the mutation in the Grin2b gene disrupts normal brain development, particularly how connections between nerve cells are typically strengthened or weakened in response to ongoing activity.

This groundbreaking work opens the door to potentially new ways of treating or managing autism.

By understanding the specific brain mechanisms involved, therapies could be developed to target these areas, helping those with autism manage one of the most intrusive aspects of their condition—overwhelming sensitivity to the world around them.

As the research continues, the insights gained could lead to more effective interventions that make everyday life much more manageable for those with autism, enhancing their ability to interact socially without the additional stress of sensory overload.

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The study is published in Molecular Psychiatry.

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