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Autism traits may be edited out in future using new techniques

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Repetitive actions, which are common in children with autism could be stopped by changing the way the brain works, research shows.

By using cutting-edge technology to edit Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material, scientists think they can reduce physical tics caused by autism, such as rocking back and forth or flapping the arms.

The gene-editing process involves changing DNA in the brain to change physical characteristics – in this case the habits, which cause people’s impulsive movements.

A successful trial on laboratory mice showed the technique could reduce symptoms caused by one of the most common forms of autism by up to 70 per cent.

The team’s findings are published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The team from the University of Texas, United States, hope the discovery will lead to more ways to tackle autism, which is thought to affect more than one in 100 children.

Autism is a disability, which affects the brains of children and changes the way they perceive the world and have relationships with other people.

There are various ways it affects people and some people are more affected than others, but it is commonly associated with a difficulty understanding emotions or taking things people say too literally.

The condition may also cause people to develop repetitive behaviours, which the scientists in this study aim to combat.

The autistic mice used by researchers had a habit of digging obsessively or leaping in the air.

In the study a special kind of enzyme was sent into the mice’s brains where it changed the mouse’s DNA – a process called CRISPR gene editing.

DNA is a sequence of chemicals and the process effectively works by reordering the sequence, which then changes the genetics of the mouse – this can in turn change physical things about the animal.

By editing the genes of a specific part of the brain so they did not work, scientists were able to reduce the mice’s digging behaviour by around 30 per cent, and their jumping by about 70 per cent.

The researchers say this is the first time gene editing has been used in this way.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last throughout a person’s life.

Specific signs of autism include: reactions to smell, taste, look, feel or sound are unusual; difficulty adapting to changes in routine; unable to repeat or echo what is said to them; difficulty expressing desires using words or motions; unable to discuss their own feelings or other people’s; difficulty with acts of affection like hugging; prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact; difficulty relating to other people; and unable to point at objects or look at objects when others point to them.

Study leader Hye Young Lee, from the University of Texas said: “There are no treatments or cures for autism yet, and many of the clinical trials of small-molecule treatments targeting proteins that cause autism have failed.


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