Researchers at UC San Diego reported Thursday their findings on how neurons in the brain make connections, which could provide greater insight into conditions like autism.

In studying the pathways from the retina to the brain in mice, which create sight, the scientists found that neurons have an orderly process of establishing connections.

Their findings appear in the online edition of the journal Cell Reports.

A healthy, mature brain has billions of interconnected neurons. The researchers looked at developing brains, when division takes place to create as many as 250,000 neurons per minute.

Connections between neurons could one help researchers understand conditions such as autism. Image courtesy of UCSD Neurosciences

“The neurons are paying attention to when they were born and reading out which choices they should make based on their birth date,” said Jessica Osterhout, a UCSD doctoral student in biology and the study’s lead author.

Sometimes mistakes are made in forming connections in developing brains, but those are corrected, the scientists said. Few such errors take place in mature brains.

According to UCSD, some researchers believe that autism and other disorders linked to brain development may be caused, in part, by a failure of neurons to properly reposition when mistakes in target selection occur.

“We want to know if (in) diseases such as autism, neurons are made out of order and as a result get confused about which connections to make,” said Andrew Huberman, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosciences and Department of Ophthalmology.

The researchers said it’s been long known that timing plays a big role in cell differentiation, but this study is one of the first to show the effect of timing on the wiring in the brain.

Rana El-Danaf and Phong Nguyen of UCSD were co-authors of the report, which received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute, The E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

— City News Service

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