Sensory neurons outside the brain drive autistic social behaviors

A fly model points to potential new therapeutic target for autism spectrum disorders.

A new study from Penn Medicine lends further evidence that the social behaviors tied to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) emerge from abnormal function of sensory neurons outside the brain. It’s an important finding, published in the journal Cell Reports, because peripheral sensory systems—which determine how we perceive the environment around us—makes for more accessible therapeutic targets to treat ASD-related symptoms, rather than the central brain itself. 

scientific rendering of neruons in flies comparing activity in courtship vs. no courtship

In the fruit fly Drosophila—a powerful model for studying neurobiology—the researchers showed that loss of a protein known as neurofibromin 1 caused adult male flies to have social impairments. Those deficits, the researchers also showed, traced back to a primary disruption in a small group of peripheral neurons controlling external stimuli, like smell and touch, that communicate to the brain.

“These data raise the exciting possibility that the root of the problem doesn’t begin with errors in the brain itself. It’s the disrupted flow of information from the periphery to the brain we should be taking a closer look at,” says senior author Matthew Kayser, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine. “The findings should help guide the field toward sensory processing therapeutic targets that, if effective, could be transformative for patients suffering from these disorders.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.