Behavioural disorders found in autism are linked to various genetic changes. Researchers at Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research (HITBR) discovered a new molecular factor causing this. Normally, the MYT1L transcription factor preserves nerve cells’ molecular identity. But when it’s switched off genetically in human cells or mice, it causes autism symptoms and functional changes. By using a drug that obstructs sodium channels in cell membranes, the consequences of MYT1L failure can be undone and the behavioural and functional issues in mice can be reduced.
The Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research (HITBR) is a joint institution of the Central Institute of Mental Health (ZI), the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Hector Foundation II.
Disorders from the autism spectrum (ASD, autism spectrum disorders) are not only manifested by impairments in social interaction, communication, and interest formation and by stereotypical behaviour patterns. This is often accompanied by other abnormalities such as epilepsy or hyperactivity.
Scientists are intensively searching for the molecular abnormalities that contribute to this complex developmental disorder. A multitude of genetic factors that influence the molecular programs of the nerve cells has already been linked to the development of autism.
Moritz Mall from the Hector Institute for Translational Brain Research (HITBR) has long been researching the role of the protein MYT1L in various neuronal diseases. The protein is a so-called transcription factor that decides which genes are active in the cell and which are not. Almost all nerve cells in the body produce MYT1L throughout their entire life span.
Mall had already shown a few years ago that MYT1L protects the identity of nerve cells by suppressing other developmental pathways that programme a cell towards muscle or connective tissue, for example. Mutations in MYT1L have been found in several neurological diseases, such as schizophrenia and epilepsy, but also in brain malformations. In their current work, which is funded by the European Research Council ERC, Mall and his team examined the exact role of the “guardian of neuronal identity” in the development of an ASD. To do this, they genetically switched off MYT1L – both in mice and in human nerve cells that had been derived from reprogrammed stem cells in the laboratory.
The loss of MYT1L led to electrophysiological hyperactivation in mouse and human neurons and thus impaired nerve function. Mice lacking MYT1L suffered from brain abnormalities, such as a thinner cerebral cortex. The animals also showed several ASS-typical behavioural changes such as social deficits or hyperactivity.
What was particularly striking about the MYT1L-deficient neurons was: They produced an excess of sodium channels that are normally mainly restricted to the heart muscle cells. These pore-shaped proteins allow sodium ions to pass through the cell membrane and are thus crucial for electrical conductivity and thus also for the functioning of the cells. If a nerve cell produces too many of these channel proteins, electrophysiological hyperactivation can be the result.
In clinical medicine, drugs that block sodium channels have been used for a long time. These include the agent lamotrigine, which is supposed to prevent epileptic seizures. When MYT1L-deficient nerve cells were treated with lamotrigine, their electrophysiological activity returned to normal. In mice, the drug was even able to curb ASD-associated behaviours such as hyperactivity.
“Apparently, drug treatment in adulthood can alleviate brain cell dysfunction and thus counteract the behavioural abnormalities typical of autism; even after the absence of MYT1L has already impaired brain development during the developmental phase of the organism,” explained Moritz Mall. However, the results are still limited to studies in mice; clinical studies in patients with disorders from the ASD spectrum have not yet been conducted. The first clinical studies are in the early planning phase.