Can stem cells treat autism?

stem cells treat autism

Jonathan Knepher first noticed his son, Brandon, acting strange when he was 18 months old. “He won’t look at me,” Jonathan said to his wife Laureen Forman. Laureen wasn’t sure what Jonathan was talking about.

Brandon always looked at her, but when she watched her husband try and fail to get his son’s attention, she realized what her husband was talking about. It was their first sign Brandon might have autism.

“Autism patients have problems developing nonverbal

communication skills…”

For Brandon, a 9-year-old who was diagnosed with autism, his struggle is similar to that of others suffering from the condition. Autism patients have problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions and body posture. They have a hard time establishing friendships and struggle to learn. Like Brandon, 40 percent of people with autism never speak. But, they, like everyone else, have feelings.

“The biggest challenge is with other people,” Forman says. Outsiders expect Rain Man-like skills. They gawk. They judge. “When we’re walking around and he’s ahing and oohing, people stare at him,” Forman says. “How does that make him feel?”

As of now, there is no cure for autism, but Ricardo Dolmetsch, an assistant professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, is using skin stem cells to study the condition. He says studying autism in the lab is almost impossible because you can’t use animals.

Animals don’t replicate the same type of social interactions that humans have with each other. Researchers also can’t biopsy patients who have autism because the infected tissue is stored in the brain.

What Dolmetsch did do is collect skin cells from people with autism and from those without it. He then reversed the maturation process of the cells so they became more like embryonic stem cells.

From there, he enticed the cells to turn into neurons of the cortex, which is the source of a person’s memory, language and other cognitive activity.

Dolmetsch then compared the neurons of people affected by autism and those not affected and noticed three major differences in electrical signaling, lack of long-distance connections and increased levels of Norepinephrine and dopamine.

While a lot more works needs to be done to figure out whether stem cell treatment will help manage autism, Dolmetsch’s experiment is a major step forward for patients like Brandon.