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Study reveals new role for gene associated with autism

Dna structure, golden dna molecule on violet background

A UCLA-led study reveals a new role for a gene that’s associated with autism, intellectual disability and language disability.

The gene, Foxp1, has previously been studied for its function in the neurons of the developing brain. But the new study reveals that it’s also important in a group of brain stem cells – the precursors to mature neurons.

This discovery really broadens the scope of where we think Foxp1 is important. And this gives us an expanded way of thinking about how its mutation affects patients.”

Mutations in Foxp1 were first identified in patients with autism and language disabilities more than a decade ago. During embryonic development, the protein plays a broad role in controlling the activity of many other genes related to blood, lung, heart, brain and spinal cord development. To study how Foxp1 mutations might cause autism, researchers have typically analyzed its role in the brain’s neurons.

“Almost all of the attention has been placed on the expression of Foxp1 in neurons that are already formed,” said Novitch, a UCLA professor of neurobiology who holds the Ethel Scheibel Chair in Neuroscience.

In the new study published in Cell Reports, he and his colleagues monitored levels of Foxp1 in the brains of developing mouse embryos. They found that, in normally developing animals, the gene was active far earlier than previous studies have indicated — during the period when neural stem cells known as apical radial glia were just beginning to expand in numbers and generate a subset of brain cells found deep within the developing brain.

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