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Neural Plasticity
Volume 2011, Article ID 921680, 17 pages
Review Article

Autism: A “Critical Period” Disorder?

Harvard Medical School and The F. M. Kirby Neurobiology Center, Children's Hospital Boston, Boston, MA 02115, USA

Received 5 March 2011; Accepted 2 June 2011

Academic Editor: Evelyne Sernagor

Copyright © 2011 Jocelyn J. LeBlanc and Michela Fagiolini. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Cortical circuits in the brain are refined by experience during critical periods early in postnatal life. Critical periods are regulated by the balance of excitatory and inhibitory (E/I) neurotransmission in the brain during development. There is now increasing evidence of E/I imbalance in autism, a complex genetic neurodevelopmental disorder diagnosed by abnormal socialization, impaired communication, and repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. The underlying cause is still largely unknown and there is no fully effective treatment or cure. We propose that alteration of the expression and/or timing of critical period circuit refinement in primary sensory brain areas may significantly contribute to autistic phenotypes, including cognitive and behavioral impairments. Dissection of the cellular and molecular mechanisms governing well-established critical periods represents a powerful tool to identify new potential therapeutic targets to restore normal plasticity and function in affected neuronal circuits.