Essential 'sugar' for brain communication: a new therapeutic path for autism, schizophrenia

For twenty years, researchers thought they knew everything there was to know about the composition of neurexin, a protein that connects neurons and is essential for communication within the brain. Neurexin is a key building block of synapses, the specialized sites where neurons connect and signal via chemical messengers.

For a long time, researchers believed they understood this unique gene with its thousands of variants. Recently, Dr. Ann Marie Craig (pictured, right) and her team discovered a glycan (a sugar-like carbohydrate) affixed to neurexin that is essential to its function and that, when absent, may increase risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and schizophrenia.

“Neurexins are central to the genetic risk pathway in autism and schizophrenia,” says Dr. Craig, who demonstrated in research published August 9 in the journal Cell that the glycan associated with neurexin, heparin sulfate (HS), is essential for synapse development.


“We knew about HS—it’s been a successful target in clinical trials for other, unrelated diseases—but we didn’t understand how it was involved in neuron communication in brain health.”

Sounds like there are already drugs.