Autism? Trauma? There’s A Virus For That.

More than 3.5 million Americans today live with autism, a condition without a cure. But that’s not to say that children with autism don’t take medication. According to a survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, more than half of children with autism ages 6 to 17 are on one or more more drugs normally given for disorders like anxiety, depression, psychosis or hyperactivity. But what if there was a way to treat these children without ever making them take another pill?

This is one of the more intriguing ideas to come out of the genetic revolution spurred by the discovery of a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9, a method that allows scientists to make precise changes to DNA sequences in any living organism, human or otherwise. Researchers are already using this technique in a vast range of projects, from creating mildew-resistant wheat to reversing mutations that cause blindness. In China, scientists have used CRISPR to edit human embryos, an announcement that set off an explosion of ethical concerns. (The scientists used embryos that could never have been brought to term, and fewer than half the embryos were edited successfully.) We are probably still years away from scientists being able to correct genetic flaws in human embryos. But what might come sooner is the ability to treat or cure diseases in children and adults, perhaps by injecting them with a CRISPR-equipped virus that will be able to correct whatever genetic defect contributes to a given disease.

At the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, scientists are using CRISPR to try to better understand — and ultimately, develop cures for — brain diseases and mental illnesses that have eluded us until now. “I see some glimmers of promise on the autism horizon,” Robert Desimone, a professor of neuroscience and the director of —> Read More