Autistic Behavior: Are Sensory Neurons Outside the Brain Responsible?

Shirley Amy
July 23, 2020

New research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, adds to previous studies that indicate the abnormal functioning of sensory neurons outside the brain are responsible for the social behavior of  individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Autistic Behavior

The medical journal, Cell Reports, which published the discovery, noted that “It’s an important finding, because peripheral sensory systems which determine how we perceive the environment around us makes for more accessible therapeutic targets to treat ASD-related symptoms, rather than the central brain itself.

Putting a Spotlight on the Research

The Drosophila (fruit fly), is a powerful model for neurobiologists. The researchers showed that loss of a certain protein (neurofibromin 1) caused adult male flies to have social impairments. Those deficits, the researchers also showed, traced back to a primary disruption in a small group of peripheral neurons controlling external stimuli, like smell and touch, that communicate to the brain.

Head author, Matthew Kayser, MD, PhD, who is a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, at the University of Pennsylvania, stated, “These data raise the exciting possibility that the root of the problem doesn’t begin with errors in the brain itself. It’s the disrupted flow of information from the periphery to the brain we should be taking a closer look at.” Ultimately, this research should help the production of sensory processing therapeutic targets which, if successful, could be transform the lives of sufferers.


A loss of neurofibromin 1 in human beings, is linked to the neurodevelopmental disorder neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). The latter has extremely high rates of autism spectrum disorder. However, how this scenario results in social behavior issues, is not get understood. Previous research has also highlighted a connection between social deficits and the peripheral sensory system; yet, this study is the first one to entail the neurofibromin functioning.

Up to 50% of children with NF1 are on the autism spectrum. Moreover, they are 13 times more inclined to display highly elevated autistic spectrum disorder symptoms, including: sensitivity to light or sound, difficulty with social tasks, increased bullying and isolation, and communicative and social disabilities. All the aforementioned are linked to having problems processing sensory information. For instance, gaze and face processing, makes a social gesture such as eye contact, extremely hard.

Mutant Flies

In vivo monitoring of the mutant flies’ neural activity, exhibited reduced sensory neuron activation in response to specific chemical cues which then disrupted proper function of downstream brain neurons that direct social decisions, suggesting a brief sensory error can have long-lasting consequences on behavior. Kayser noted that sensory processing is a readily testable entry-point into social behavioral dysfunction, so findings from these experiments have potential to rapidly impact the clinical setting. Those suffering from autism, along with their families and loved ones, have been waiting for far too long for a break through, or cure. So let’s hope that this research will have a strong impact.

Shirley Amy

Shirley Amy is a Holistic Health Specialist and professional writer who's published 4 books. Her  interests include optimum wellness, mental health, fitness, and positive lifestyle change. She holds University and College qualifications in the fields of Health Science, Nutrition, Mental Health, Fitness, Holistic Therapy and Aromatherapy.

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