A brain region largely known for coordinating motor control has a largely overlooked role in childhood development that could reveal information crucial to understanding the onset of autism, according to Princeton University researchers.
The cerebellum—an area located in the lower rear of the brain—is known to process external and internal information such as sensory cues that influence the development of other brain regions, the researchers report in the journalNeuron. Based on a review of existing research, the researchers offer a new theory that an injury to the cerebellum during early life potentially disrupts this process and leads to what they call “developmental diaschisis,” which is when a loss of function in one part of the brain leads to problems in another region.
The researchers specifically apply their theory to autism, though they note that it could help understand other childhood neurological conditions. Conditions within the autism spectrum present “longstanding puzzles” related to cognitive and behavioral disruptions that their ideas could help resolve, they wrote. Under their theory, cerebellar injury causes disruptions in how other areas of the brain develop an ability to interpret external stimuli and organize internal processes, explained first author Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI).
“It is well known that the cerebellum is an information processor. Our neocortex [the largest part of the brain, responsible for much higher processing] does not receive information unfiltered. There are critical steps that have to happen between when external information is detected by our brain and when it reaches the neural cortex,” said Wang, who worked with doctoral student Alexander Kloth and postdoctoral research associate Aleksandra Badura, both in PNI.
“At some point, you learn that smiling is nice because Mom smiles at you. We have all these associations we make in early life because we don’t arrive knowing that a smile is nice,” Wang said. “In autism, something in that process goes wrong and one thing could be that sensory information is not processed correctly in the cerebellum.”
Mustafa Sahin, a neurologist at Boston’s Children Hospital and associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, said that Wang and his co-authors build upon known links between cerebellar damage and autism to suggest that the cerebellum is essential to healthy neural development. Numerous studies—including from his own lab—support their theory, said Sahin, who is familiar with the work but was not involved in it.