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Aurora magazine

Autism and insomnia: all the fault of a gene

About 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders suffer from insomnia. Why has always been a mystery, just like the very cause of the disorders. A new study by Washington State University may have found the cause of these sleep disorders. If confirmed, they could develop new treatments to alleviate this problem. There is a link between sleep disorders and severity of autism spectrum disorders.

Scientists think that by solving the former they could at least alleviate the latter. In fact, children who sleep well have fewer problems in terms of communication and social interaction. For this reason, the authors of the study looked for the genetic causes of insomnia in those suffering from autism. Sleep problems in these patients appear to be linked to a mutation in the SHANK3 gene.

The gene regulates the sleep-wake cycle and, when absent or altered, causes insomnia. The researchers then analyzed data from some patients with Phelan-McDermid syndrome. The disease is linked to autism and many patients lack the SHANK3 gene. These find it hard to fall asleep and tend to wake up during the night. To confirm the discovery, the researchers compared guinea pigs with the mutation and guinea pigs without the mutation.

The mice in the first group took much longer than the average to fall asleep. Moreover, they slept worse. Now they will have to understand the molecular mechanism behind the problem, so as to develop an effective therapy.