ASDs are common and enigmatic diseases. ASDs comprise classical idiopathic autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified73,74
. Moreover, several other genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, Fragile-X Mental Retardation, and tuberous sclerosis, are frequently associated with autism. Such syndromic forms of autism and Rett syndrome are usually more severe due to the nature of the underlying diseases. The key features of ASDs are difficulties in social interactions and communication, language impairments, a restricted pattern of interests, and/or stereotypic and repetitive behaviors. Mental retardation (~70% of cases) and epilepsy (~30% of cases) are frequently observed; in fact, the observation of epilepsy in patients with ASDs has fueled speculation that autism may be caused by an imbalance of excitatory vs. inhibitory synaptic transmission. In rare instances, idiopathic autism is associated with specialized abilities, for example in music, mathematics, or memory. The relation of ASDs to other cognitive diseases such as schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome is unclear. As we will see below with the phenotypes caused by mutations in Nlgns and Nrxns, the boundaries between the various disorders may not be as real as the clinical manifestations suggest.
A key feature of ASDs is that they typically develop before 2–3 years of age73,74
. ASDs thus affect brain development relatively late, during the time of human synapse formation and maturation. Consistent with this time course, few anatomical changes are associated with ASDs75
. An increase in brain size was repeatedly reported76
, but is not generally agreed upon75
. Thus, similar to other cognitive diseases, ASDs are not a disorder of brain structure but of brain function. Among cognitive diseases, ASDs are the most heritable (~ 80%), suggesting that they are largely determined by genes and not the environment. ASDs exhibit a male:female ratio of approximately 4:1, indicating that ASDs involve the X-chromosome directly, or that the penetrance of pathogenic genes is facilitated in males73,74
Mutations in many genes have been associated with familial ASDs. A consistent observation emerging from recent studies is the discovery of mutations in the genes encoding Nrxn1, Nlgn3, and Nlgn4. Specifically, seven point mutations, two distinct translocation events, and four different large-scale deletions in the Nrxn1 gene were detected in autistic patients13–18
. Ten different mutations in the Nlgn4 gene were observed (2 frameshifts, 5 missense mutations, and 3 internal deletions), and a single mutation in the Nlgn3 gene (the R451C substitution)21–24
. Besides these mutations, five different larger deletions of X-chromosomal DNA that includes the Nlgn4 locus (referred to as copy-number variations) were detected in autism patients18,25–27
In addition to the Nrxn/Nlgn complex, mutations in the gene encoding Shank3 – an intracellular scaffolding protein that binds indirectly to Nlgns via PSD-95 and GKAP ()66
– may also be a relatively frequent occurrence in ASDs. An astounding 18 point mutations were detected in the Shank3 gene in autistic patients, in addition to several cases containing CNVs that cover the gene18,77–82
. Indeed, the so-called terminal 22q deletion syndrome is a relatively frequent occurrence that exhibits autistic features, which have been correlated with the absence of the Shank3 gene normally localized to this chromosome section. Shank3 is particularly interesting because it not only indirectly interacts with Nlgns, but also directly binds to CIRL/Latrophilins which in turn constitute α-latrotoxin receptors similar to Nrxns, suggesting a potential functional connection between Shank3 and Nrxns83
Overall, the description of the various mutations in the Nrxn/Nlgn/Shank3 complex appears to provide overwhelming evidence for a role of this complex in ASDs, given the fact that in total, these mutations account for a significant proportion of autism patients. It should be noted, however, that two issues give rise to skepticism to the role of this complex in ASDs.
First, at least for some of the mutations in this complex, non-symptomatic carriers were detected in the same families in which the patients with the mutations were found. Whereas the Nlgn3 and Nlgn4 mutations appear to be almost always penetrant in males, and even female carriers with these mutations often have a phenotype, the Shank3 point mutations in particular were often observed in non-symptomatic siblings77,78
. Thus, these mutations may only increase the chance of autism, but not actually cause autism.
Second, the same mutations can be associated with quite different phenotypes in different people. For example, a microdeletion in Nlgn4 was found to cause severe autism in one brother, but Tourette’s syndrome in the other26
. This raises the issue whether the ‘autism’ observed in patients with mutations in these genes is actually autism, an issue that could also be rephrased as the question of whether autism is qualitatively distinct from other cognitive diseases, as opposed to a continuum of cognitive disorders. In support of the latter idea, two different deletions of Nrxn1α have also been observed in families with schizophrenia19,20
, indicating that there is a continuum of disorders that involves dysfunctions in synaptic cell adhesion and manifests in different ways. Conversely, very different molecular changes may produce a similar syndrome, as exemplified by the quite different mutations that are associated with ASDs84
At present, the relation between the Nrxn/Nlgn synaptic cell-adhesion complex and ASDs is tenuous. On one hand, many of the mutations observed in familial ASD are clearly not polymorphisms but deleterious, as evidenced by the effect of these mutations on the structure or expression of the corresponding genes, and by the severe autism-like phenotypes observed in Nlgn3 and Nlgn4 mutant mice85–87
. On the other hand, the nonlinear genotype/phenotype relationship in humans, evident from the only 70–80% heritability and from the occasional presence of mutations in non-symptomatic individuals, requires explanation. Elucidating the underlying mechanisms for this incomplete genotype/phenotype relationship is a promising avenue to insight into the genesis of autism. Furthermore, in addition to the link of Nrxn1α mutations to schizophrenia19,20
, linkage studies have connected Nrxn3 to different types of addiction88,89
. It is possible that because of the nature of their function, mutations in genes encoding Nrxns and Nlgns constitute hotspots for human cognitive diseases.