Researchers working with Professor Gudrun Rappold, Director of the Department of Molecular Human Genetics at Heidelberg University Hospital, have discovered previously unknown mutations in autistic and mentally impaired patients in what is known as the SHANK2 gene, a gene that is partially responsible for linking nerve cells. However, a single gene mutation is not always enough to trigger the illness. In some cases, a certain threshold of mutation must be exceeded. The researchers conclude from their results that a correct inner structure of the nerve cell synapses is necessary to enable the normal development of language, social competence, and cognitive capacity. Essential for the success of the project were the studies by the Heidelberg research team with the doctoral student Simone Berkel and collaboration with a Canadian research team headed by Steve Scherer. The study has already been published online in the leading scientific journal “Nature Genetics”.
Autism is a congenital perception and information-processing disorder of the brain that is often associated with low intelligence, but also with above-average intelligence. The disease is characterized by limited social communication and stereotypical or ritualized behavior. Men are affected much more frequently than women. Autism and mental retardation can occur together but also independently of one another and are determined to a great extent by hereditary factors. Some of the responsible genes have already been identified but the precise genetic mechanisms have not yet been explained.