Some autistics are known as "autistic savants" because they develop a genius in one subject, such as mathematics or art. New research shows this syndrome can be induced by tinkering with one protein in the brain which is responsible for building synapses, the brain structures that help neurons talk to each other. Neuroscientists at MIT (pictured) bred rats that lacked this protein, known as Shank1, and discovered the creatures could do spacial learning an extremely rapid clip, though they showed other signs of severe autism. These neuroscientists' work could go in two directions: curing some kinds of autism, and inducing selective superintelligence.
According to Albert Y. Hung, a staff neurologist at Mass General and co-author of the study:
These opposite effects on different types of learning are reminiscent of the mixed features of autistic patients, who may be disabled in some cognitive areas but show enhanced abilities in others. The superior learning ability of these mutant mice in a specific realm is reminiscent of human autistic savants.
MIT news reports:
Hung said that while it seems counter-intuitive that loss of an important synaptic scaffold protein would result in improved learning among the mice in this study, the absence of this protein may "trap" the mice's synapses in a more plastic state, which means the synapses are ready to respond to input but not maintain it in long-term memory. Aberrant synapse development and faulty structure of dendritic spines—tiny protrusions on the surface of neurons that receive messages from other neurons—are often associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, in humans.
It's possible that if researchers could induce the plasticity of synapses by tinkering with Shank1, they could help people learn more quickly. The trick would be staving off the side-effects, such as the autism spectrum disorders which cause long-term memory problems and emotional fragility. Photo by Donna Coveney.
Gene research may help explain "autistic savants" [MIT News]