Hundreds of talented scientists have devoted research to understanding autism.
Nathan Urban, the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of them working to unlock a piece of the complex puzzle.
Urban has received a $250,000 grant from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative to study the neuronal basis of unreliable sensory evoked responses in a model of autism.
"We are always looking for ways in which our basic science can be applied to improve our understanding of brain disorders," Urban said. "I think that analyzing the fundamental computational properties of single neurons and small circuits has tremendous potential for linking cellular and genetic approaches in animals to our understanding of human disorders."
The brain, as a biological organ, is composed of nerve cells connected to each other by structures called synapses. Neurons and synapses are rather unreliable devices, especially when compared to the components of electronic devices, such as computers. Collectively, however, neurons in the brain normally function to enable highly reliable responses to sensory stimuli.
Recent functional MRI (fMRI) studies from the lab of Carnegie Mellon Psychology Professor Marlene Behrmann suggest that in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorders, these mechanisms fail, resulting in unreliable responses to sensory stimuli. Researchers believe that these deficits could be related to the repetitive behaviors commonly associated with people with autism. Understanding the neural circuitry and biochemical pathways that underlie these symptoms provides a promising avenue for new treatments.
Under the grant, Urban will study the responses of neurons in the brains of genetically modified mice that have been engineered to have some of the same genetic mutations known to occur in some individuals with autism. Using three different mouse models, he will determine whether alterations in single neurons, synapses or neuronal circuits contribute to changes in the reliability of sensory-evoked neuronal responses.
"Autism is a deeply mysterious disorder and new approaches are needed to improve our understanding and to identify potential treatment approaches," Urban said.
The Simons Foundation is a private foundation based in New York City. Its mission is to advance the frontier of research in mathematics and the basic sciences. The Autism Research Initiative seeks to improve the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders by funding, catalyzing and driving innovative research of the greatest quality and relevance.