Study links autism to disorder of touch perception in the skin


Sensitivity varies greatly among different people. How noise, pain, sound, touch and other stimuli are perceived determines responses. Variations in sensory perception result in variations in emotions and behavior.

When people don’t feel as though they are receiving enough external stimuli, they may feel bored or do something to “stir things up.” On the other hand, too much stimulation can be overwhelming and cause people to take some sort of action to reduce the amount of stimuli they are receiving. These normal responses serve to lower the anxiety caused by the surrounding environment.

Autism as a disorder of touch perception

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have varying degrees of difficulty with sensory perception, communication, social interaction and behavior. Abnormalities of touch perception have also been widely reported, but the mechanism of these abnormalities had remained unknown until now.

A team of researchers recently aimed to expand the concept of autism as merely as brain disease by examining peripheral synaptic nerve function. Peripheral synaptic nerve function refers to how nerve cells communicate with each other to take in and process sensory information in order to respond accordingly.

The study examined genetically engineered mice with gene mutations associated with ASD. In addition to the gene mutations, the affected mice also interacted less with other mice and demonstrated heightened anxiety behaviors.

The mice were found to be extremely sensitive to touch and unable to discriminate between different types of touch and textures. Nerve transmission from the sensory neurons in the skin to the spinal cord and brain was also abnormal.

David Ginty, Ph.D., is a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and senior author of the study. Dr. Ginty explained in a press release, “A key aspect of this work is that we’ve shown that a tactile, somatosensory dysfunction contributes to behavior deficits; something that hasn’t been seen before. In this case, that deficit is anxiety and problems with social interactions.”

Future directions

The authors plan to develop genetic and pharmaceutical treatments to help regulate the hypersensitivity. Because mice are genetically similar to humans, this research will hopefully lead to effective treatments for children and adults with ASD.

For those with and without ASD, too little or too much stimulation (especially negative) can lead social anxiety, panic, substance use, mental illness and suicide. Researcher and clinical psychologist Elaine Aron, Ph.D., describes about 20 percent of the populations as “highly sensitive.” Even those who are not highly sensitive can get bored or overwhelmed sometimes. If you or someone you love is having difficulty coping in healthy way, proper diagnosis and treatment can help.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. 

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