Single-unit recordings in neurosurgical patients with autism
California Institute of Technology
Meixner Translational Postdoctoral Fellowship
Research to understand the biology behind autism is difficult in good part because it is hard to get certain kinds of data in humans. It is known that the brains of people with autism work differently, and it is known that they show some structural abnormalities as well. However, such relatively coarse data need to be complemented by detailed investigations of how single cells in the brain respond -- data typically limited to animal studies. The study builds on preliminary data showing this is possible in humans as well. Neurosurgical patients being monitored for epilepsy have electrodes implanted into their brains. Single neurons can be reported from these electrodes. A subset of these patients have autism, thus providing the unique opportunity to find out how single cells respond differently in the brains of people with autism. The fellow’s background in single-cell recordings from the brains of monkeys provides her with the technical skills to undertake this training and research. Her future career goal is to combine her medical background with this scientific training to pursue biomedical neuroscience research on autism. Training would consist of frequent meetings and presentations, together with one-on-one mentoring in social neuroscience, autism research, and human electrophysiology. The research would consist in recording the responses of cells in the amygdala to faces, both in neurosurgical patients without autism, and in neurosurgical patients who also meet research criteria for autism. The unique data acquired from this project has the potential to shed light on the detailed physiological mechanisms that underlie social cognition and face processing in autism. They would help elucidate the importance of a particular comorbidity (epilepsy) and would help to anchor specific subtypes of autism by direct reference to how cells in the brain respond.