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Autism research to advance with $3.6 million NIH grant to Scripps Florida team

By Stacey Singer DeLoye

Faculty members Courtney Miller and Gavin Rumbaugh will investigate how gene function affects healthy social and cognitive development. (Photo by Scott Wiseman)

Gavin Rumbaugh, PhD, of The Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus, will lead a 5-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to continue studies of abnormal brain circuitry in autism.

The grant builds upon previous work from the Rumbaugh lab that uncovered a sensitive period in brain development during which an autism and intellectual disability risk gene called Syngap1 must function properly to promote assembly of circuitry needed for healthy social and cognitive development. 

With the new funding, the team plans to focus on how this Syngap1sensitive period regulates developmental processes that link sensory processing to learning, and how harmful Syngap1 mutations may lead to autism-associated behavioral changes through sensory dysfunction.

Sensory processing impairments are nearly universal in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and intellectual disability. However, it is unclear how and where in the brain altered sensory processing impairs learning and drives altered behaviors in these disorders.

“Our Syngap1 animal models are an excellent way to investigate the direct neurobiological links between autism-associated sensory processing impairments and behavioral changes also seen in these children,” Rumbaugh says. “Understanding how these processes are linked is critical to identifying the brain circuits that are not functioning properly and contributing to the cause of these disorders.” 

The work will be performed in collaboration with Scripps Research Associate Professor Courtney Miller, PhD, and Jason Christie, PhD, a researcher at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience. The proposed studies require the real-time measurement of brain activity in Syngap1 mice undergoing behavioral training in a variety of sensory detection tasks. Miller’s expertise in developing complex rodent behavioral paradigms, and Christie’s successful adoption of emerging tools to measure brain activity in behaving animals, are critical to the project, Rumbaugh says.

“This project reflects the growing need for researchers with diverse expertise to collaborate in order to solve important problems in neuroscience,” Rumbaugh says.

The number of the grant is R01 MH096847.

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