Autism Spectrum Center | Basic Science Studies

The Autism Spectrum Center conducts a wealth of neuroscience research on autism through the Translational Neuroscience Center and the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center.  We are working hard to develop the treatments of tomorrow, moving insights from the laboratory as quickly as possible to clinical studies and, finally, to our patients and families.

Autism genetics

A clear genetic cause for ASD has been elusive. Christopher Walsh, MD, PhD, and Louis Kunkel, PhD, of the Division of Genetics and Genomics are working with the Autism Spectrum Center to characterize children with different kinds of autism and then use a variety of genetic techniques to find genes and gene pathways associated with these different autism “subgroups.”  Read more.

Autism and synapses

Synapses are the junctions where neurons meet and exchange information. Studying mice with Rett syndrome, which causes autism-like symptoms, Chinfei Chen, MD, is finding that these mice are unable to use sensory experience to stabilize and consolidate their synapses as compared with normal mice.  Read more.

Attacking the synapse question from another direction, Beth Stevens, PhD, and colleagues are looking at the role of brain cells called glia in pruning away synapses that are irrelevant and aren’t needed. Read more

Autism and “critical periods”

The circuits that wire up our brains are fine-tuned during infancy and early childhood, especially during particular windows of time known as critical periods, when the brain “rewires” much more readily. Takao Hensch, PhD, and his colleagues are exploring factors that affect the timing of these critical periods, which may be abnormal in children with ASDs.

Autism and sensory processing

Children with autism spectrum disorder often have heightened sensitivity to noise, touch or smell. Using mouse models of autism, Takao Hensch, PhD, and colleagues are finding differences in how the brain integrates sound and touch information in a deep brain region called the insula. Read more.

Autism “signatures” in blood

Louis Kunkel, PhD, and Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, have collaborated to compare patterns of gene activity, or expression, in white blood cells taken from children with and without ASD.  This has led to a potential blood test for autism that is now in clinical development.

Read more about our autism research in this 2010 feature, “Breaking into the autistic brain.”

Autism and brain circuits

Studying patients with tuberous sclerosis complex, about half of whom have ASD, Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, and Simon Warfield, PhD, have found that nerve fibers are disorganized and structurally abnormal. Sahin is testing whether drug treatment can counter these defects. Read more

Studying mice with Rett syndrome, Michela Fagiolini, PhD, is finding that the causative mutations disrupt brain circuitry and function—leading to too many “inhibitory” connections—but also that the damage can potentially be undone. Read more.