Scientists Now Believe Neurons Are Unique. Can This Help Explain Autism?

Scientists have been working hard for years to solve the puzzle of how a person develops a condition like schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy or bipolar disorder. What they've found so far about who's likely to inherit these conditions only explains some of the cases. Now, researchers across leading institutions are coming together "to better understand how genetic variation in brain cells affects human health and disease," according to the University of Virginia School of Medicine. The new assumption? That each neuron in your brain may be genetically unique.

Marking A Huge Change

Looking for genetic mutations in individual neurons to explain psychiatric disorders breaks from an old school of thought. "The idea is something that 10 years ago would have been science fiction. We were taught that every cell has the same DNA, but that's not true," biochemist James Eberwine of the University of Pennsylvania told Scientific American. Turns out, one person's brain could have multiple genomes.

Scientists are teaming up to take a look at somatic mutations, alterations in the DNA cells that causes a hodgepodge of genetic differences known as somatic mosaicism, as a potential culprit for disorders like autism. They're using an array of methods to look into the "frequency and pattern" of somatic mutations in brains with neuropsychiatric disorders compared to those in normal brains, according to a paper published in Science.

However, that's not to say people without a disorder can't also have mutations. The frequency and pattern could be key to revealing when mutations lead to a disorder. Because individual neurons live as long as you do and, obviously, have a direct influence on the way the brain operates, even a handful of neurons with genetic mutations can have a big impact on the brain.

Related: The Harvard Brain Bank Is Driving Life-Saving Neuroscience

If We Put Our Heads Together

Thanks to ever-improving genomic technology, the research continues to dig deeper toward a cause for neuropsychiatric disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health is funding the Brain Somatic Mosaicism Network. Researchers come from institutions across the country, all working toward a common goal of understanding how the brain develops and why some brains develop a neuropsychiatric disorder.

The network's six main research projects address the influence somatic mosaicism may have on individual diseases, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and Tourette's. Researchers at all 15 institutions have access to more than 10,000 DNA-sequencing data sets, according to the network's article in Science. With this much brainpower going into learning about the brain, we may discover the root cause behind these disorders sooner rather than later.

Is there something you're curious about? Send us a note or email us at editors (at) And follow Curiosity on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Watch And Learn: Our Most Fascinating Content About Brain Disorders

What Does "Autism Spectrum" Actually Mean?

Schizophrenia & Dissociative Disorders

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The word schizophrenia literally means "split mind." 00:23

  2. With proper treatment, people with schizophrenia can lead satisfying lives, and some have made historic contributions to the world. 03:59

  3. You have about a 10% chance of developing schizophrenia if you have a parent or sibling with the disorder. 07:25

Acting with Tourette's Syndrome

Written by Haley Otman May 11, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.