Genetic factors play a major role in the risk for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and intellectual disability (ID). The underlying genetic factors have become better understood in recent years due to advancements in next generation sequencing. These studies have uncovered a vast number of genes that are impacted by different types of mutations (e.g., de novo, missense, truncation, copy number variations).
Given the large volume of genetic data, analyzing each gene on its own is not a feasible approach and will take years to complete, let alone attempt to use the information to develop novel therapeutics. To make sense of independent genomic data, one approach is to determine whether multiple risk genes function in common signaling pathways that identify signaling “hubs” where risk genes converge. This approach has led to multiple pathways being implicated, such as synaptic signaling, chromatin remodeling, alternative splicing, and protein translation, among many others. In this review, we analyze recent and historical evidence indicating that multiple risk genes, including genes denoted as high-confidence and likely causal, are part of the Wingless (Wnt signaling) pathway. In the brain, Wnt signaling is an evolutionarily conserved pathway that plays an instrumental role in developing neural circuits and adult brain function.
We will also review evidence that pharmacological therapies and genetic mouse models further identify abnormal Wnt signaling, particularly at the synapse, as being disrupted in ASDs and contributing to disease pathology.