RIVERSIDE (CBSLA.com) — Scientists at UC Riverside are pointing at an enzyme called MMP-9 as playing a critical role in the development of autism.

The scientists’ finding were published Friday online in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Scientists told KCAL9’s Crystal Cruz that they have long known how MMP-9 is created; it’s produced by brain cells. Small amounts of the enzyme don’t seem to affect a person. But too much of the enzyme can cause synapses, the connections between the cells that translate brainwaves, to become dysfunctional.

This finding is significant because it possibly leads to the medical world being a step closer figuring out how better to help people with autism. The finding doesn’t mean an effective treatment for autism is imminent, but it could be on the distant horizon.

The scientists mostly used mice in their research, but human brain cells were also studied.

The study concludes that the naturally produced enzyme is responsible for autism and other neurological disorders with people to have what is called Fragile X Syndrome.

It’s been a few years since Jessica Nerren’s son Royce, 8, was diagnosed with autism.

“He was exhibiting aggressive and self injuries. He was hitting himself against objects, throwing himself on the ground,” says Nerren.

Doctor’s first had to rule out Fragile X syndrome, which they did, before diagnosing Royce with autism.

But some children have both.

“The Fragile X is one of the neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s a genetic disease, and its associated with autism,” says Iryna Ethell, professor of biomedical sciences at UC Riverside and co-lead author on the study.

After years of work, the new discovery could help children with Fragile X who also have autism.

The professor’s team tested mice and found out if they got rid of the the gene that activates the enzyme MMP-9, that gets rid of autistic behavior in those with Fragile X.

“We measured behaviors such as social interactions and anxiety. All of those features were corrected in these mice,” says Ethell.

It’s promising, but mothers like Nerren know help will take time.

“Any research that shows anything that could help a family like mine,” she says. “I’m very thankful to researchers for doing the work they do.”

Researchers aren’t sure how this new information will affect other forms of autism.


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