In recent years, an increasing focus has been put on understanding the genetic and molecular underpinnings of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a condition characterized by various degrees of social interaction impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Among the numerous genes linked to the disorder, SHANK3 has been spotlighted due to its significant association with the neural development and synaptic functions implicated in ASD. The intricacies of SHANK3 transcription regulation remain a knowledge gap that is crucial for furthering therapies and interventions. In groundbreaking research published in Neuroscience, the regulatory mechanism of SHANK3, driven by the transcription factor EGR1, has been elucidated, offering prospective avenues for precision-targeted therapy for ASD.

The study, painstakingly conducted by a team including Juan Chen-Xia and Mao Yan from the Jiangsu Province Hospital of Chinese Medicine, affiliated with Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine; Han Xiao of the Institute for Stem Cell and Neural Regeneration, Nanjing Medical University; and Qian Hua-Ying and Chu Kang-Kang of Nanjing Brain Hospital, presents novel findings that pave the way for a deeper molecular understanding of ASD.

DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2024.01.006


ASD affects 1 in 54 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the condition’s etiology is multifactorial, genetic contributions offer tangible mechanisms underlying its pathology. SHANK3 is a pivotal gene encoding a scaffolding protein at the postsynaptic density of excitatory synapses. It is instrumental in the formation and maturation of synaptic connections – the vital communications points between neurons. The aberrant expression of SHANK3 has been previously associated with the developmental and behavioral manifestations seen in ASD, prompting an essential question: what regulates SHANK3 expression during critical periods of brain development?

The Study

The researchers utilized a multi-faceted approach to answer this question, employing cutting-edge techniques ranging from immunofluorescence, bioinformatics analysis, dual-luciferase reporter assays, site-directed mutations, electrophoretic mobility shift assays (EMSA), and chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP). Their object of study was brain-like organoids, which offer an innovative three-dimensional in vitro system that closely recapitulates the cellular and architectural complexity of the developing brain.

The study revealed that during brain development, specifically at the 60-day mark in brain organoids, there was a notable increase in SHANK3 expression. By predicting and analyzing the SHANK3 gene’s transcription start site through bioinformatics software, the team could pinpoint core transcription elements in the SHANK3 promoter.

The most striking discovery was the role of EGR1, a well-known transcription factor involved in neural plasticity and brain development. Through meticulous experiments, the team demonstrated EGR1’s ability to physically bind to the SHANK3 promoter, thereby regulating its transcription. This finding aligns with and extends our understanding of EGR1 as a key player in the neural circuitry that potentially perturbs the balance of synaptic signaling in ASD.

Implications for ASD

These findings could revolutionize the approach to ASD treatment, as the modulation of EGR1-SHANK3 interaction may allow for the development of novel therapeutics that target the etiological root of the disorder. Potential interventions could range from gene therapy to small molecules that modulate the transcriptional activity of EGR1 or its interaction with the SHANK3 promoter.

Future Directions

The researchers eagerly note that further investigations should be carried out, involving pathological phenotypes of human brain organoids or animal model brains with EGR1 deficiency to substantiate these findings. Additionally, questions remain on how EGR1 is regulated and what environmental or genetic factors may influence its activity in the developing brain.


The pioneering work of Chen-Xia and colleagues provides groundbreaking insights into the intricate molecular dance that orchestrates brain development and opens potential therapeutic windows for ASD. As the scientific community continues to unravel the complexities of neuronal interactions and genetic regulation, this study acts as a cornerstone upon which a more comprehensive understanding of ASD can be built.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
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3. Betancur, C., Sakurai, T., & Buxbaum, J. D. (2009). The emerging role of synaptic cell-adhesion pathways in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorders. Trends in Neurosciences, 32(7), 402-412.
4. Monteiro, P., & Feng, G. (2017). SHANK proteins: roles at the synapse and in autism spectrum disorder. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(3), 147-157.
5. Uchino, S., & Waga, C. (2015). SHANK3 as an autism spectrum disorder-associated gene. Brain Development, 37(2), 115-120.


1. SHANK3 autism spectrum disorder
2. EGR1 transcription factor brain development
3. Brain organoid gene expression ASD
4. Synaptic signaling EGR1-SHANK3 interaction
5. Targeted therapy for autism gene regulation