The problems people with autism have with memory formation, higher-level thinking and social interactions may be partially attributable to the activity of receptors inside brain cells, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have learned.
Scientists were already aware that the type of receptor in question was a potential contributor to these problems – when located on the surfaces of brain cells. Until now, though, the role of the same type of receptor located inside the cell had gone unrecognized. Such receptors inside cells significantly outnumber the same type of receptors on the surface of cells.
The receptor under study, known as the mGlu5 receptor, becomes activated when it binds to the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is associated with learning and memory. This leads to chain reactions that convert the glutamate’s signal into messages traveling inside the cell.
In the new study, scientists working with cells in a dish linked mGlu5 receptors inside cells to processes that turn down the volume at which brain cells talk to each other. These volume changes, essential for learning and memory, may become exaggerated in people with autism.
Pharmaceutical companies have developed therapeutic compounds to decrease signaling associated with the mGlu5 receptor, moderating its effects on brain cells’ volume knobs. But the compounds were designed to target mGlu5 surface receptors. In light of the new findings, the scientists question if those drugs will reach the receptors inside cells.
“Our results suggest that to have the greatest therapeutic benefit, we may need to make sure we’re blocking all of this type of receptor, both inside and on the surface of the cell,” said senior investigator Karen O’Malley, PhD, professor of neurobiology.