Missing Protein May Explain 'Rain Man'

Brain deficiency could play role in creating autistic savants
By Nick McMaster,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 13, 2008 4:27 PM CST

(Newser) – The absence of a certain brain protein may play a role in the development of “autistic savants”—patients who exhibit the socio-cognitive impairments of autism but possess exceptional aptitude in highly specific areas, Live Science reports. Researchers found mice lacking the Shank1 protein, used for building synapses, learned one spatial memory task faster and better than normal mice despite having somewhat shriveled brains.

But weeks later, the altered mice couldn’t recall the superior skills they had learned and performed worse on the spatial task than the controls. "These opposite effects on different types of learning are reminiscent of the mixed features of autistic patients, who may be disabled in some cognitive areas but show enhanced abilities in others," said one of the researchers.