The human brain contains a massive network of neurons that communicate with one another to control fundamental cognitive processes such as learning, speech, and memory. Neurons talk to one another through synapses: specialized sites of cell-to-cell contact. Synapses come in two flavors: excitatory, which promotes information propagation through networks, and inhibitory, which prevents it. The billions of neurons in the human brain form trillions of synapses, ensuring proper information flow in the brain.
One theory to explain the cause of autism spectrum disorders ASD) posits that communication between neurons in networks breaks down due to a disruption in the proper balance of excitatory and inhibitory synapses such that there is too much excitation. This could also explain why many individuals with ASD also experience seizures, which are caused by runaway excitation in the brain. Our laboratory has discovered that the novel protein Sema4D causes new inhibitory synapses to form very rapidly, within a few hours of exposure to Sema4D. Our proposal aims to test the hypothesis that Sema4D, or molecules like it, might restore the balance of excitation and inhibition in brain and therefore be a useful therapeutic for individuals with ASD.