The protein, called Cdk5, seems to pave the way for another protein, called CASK, to build synapses between brain cells.
Brain cells communicate across synapses. So synapse production is a big deal -- and without enough Cdk5, that process can go wrong.
"We found that Cdk5 is critical for recruiting CASK to do its job for developing synapses," Li-Huei Tsai, PhD, says in a news release.
Tsai is the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Tsai's team learned that by studying Cdk5 in test tubes and in mice. They didn't study people, but the researchers write that their findings may have implications for studying autism.
Other studies have linked synapse problems to decreased social interaction in mice, an autism symptom. And glitches in the Cdk5 gene have been found in mentally retarded people.
"There are still a lot of unknowns," says Tsai.
Tsai and colleagues report their findings in today's edition of Neuron.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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