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Laser microscope offers autism insights

EDINBURGH, Scotland, March 31, 2014 — A new laser microscope has the potential for better understanding the complex brain circuits of people with autism.

A team from University of Edinburgh’s Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Intellectual Disability and Fragile X Syndrome is developing the instrument, which uses a type of laser that allows for deeper examination of brain tissue.

“This allows us to start imaging in live tissue,” said Peter Kind, a professor and co-director of the center. “So in terms of understanding how the brain circuits go awry, we can start to address those questions in ways we weren’t able to before.”

Researchers in Scotland are developing a laser microscope that could offer a better understanding of autism. Courtesy of International Center for Autism Research & Education.

Part of the work focuses on looking at the brain activity in animals bred to have the characteristics of autism. In another, the researchers are using the laser microscope to study the circuits of neurons in brain slices.

As researchers better understand the inner workings of autism sufferers’ neural circuits, they will begin testing chemical compounds for ways to correct how the circuits are misbehaving. This could include drugs that are already in use in other conditions or clinical trials, as well as more early-stage compounds.

Ultimately, Kind said that treatments could be developed to address some of the key problems associated with autism, such as repetitive behaviors, and social and communication problems.

“We welcome research that could help us better understand the causes of autism,” said Robert MacBean, policy and campaigns officer for the National Autistic Society in Scotland. “[An] important thing is that we work to ensure people with the disability receive the support they need to reach their full potential.”

The research is funded by a £1 million (about $1.66 million) donation from philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley.

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