Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

New Thoughts on Autism

Research shows that outside stimuli can turn genes on and off in developing brains
October 20, 2008

In the 1950s, medical opinion held that autism was caused by uncaring “refrigerator mothers.” That perception was smashed in the 1970s by evidence that autism was probably tied to genetic factors. However, an MIT neuroscientist now believes that autism may in fact have an environmental component, albeit one that operates through genetic, and not social, behavior.

In work that focused on specific genes crucial to developing brains, the Picower Institute’s Mriganka Sur, who also chairs MIT’s brain and ­cognitive-sciences department, and Alvin W. Lyckman, a former MIT postdoctoral associate now at Tufts University, used DNA microarrays to pinpoint genes expressed during a critical period of brain development in mice. They found a set of calcium-­sensing genes that are particularly apt to switch their expression patterns in response to environmental influences. In humans as in mice, calcium activates signaling pathways that stimulate neuronal gene expression. Calcium deprivation could prevent some genes from being expressed; the resulting dearth of critical proteins could be one of the culprits behind autism.

“If we understood how genes changed in response to environmental influences in the developing brain, we might be able to one day prevent or reverse the changes,” says Sur.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

pig kidney transplant surgery
pig kidney transplant surgery

Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient

The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.