Timing mechanisms of critical periods in brain development

  • Autism Research
Speaker Takao Hensch, Ph.D.
Harvard University
Date & Time


Gerald D. Fischbach Auditorium
160 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10010 United States

Autism Research

Autism Research lectures bring together scientists and scholars to discuss diverse and important topics related to autism.

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On 30 September 2015, Takao Hensch discussed the biological bases of critical periods in brain development. Mechanisms that open and close windows of plasticity (E/I balance and molecular brakes, respectively) have been implicated in autism, suggesting mistimed maturational processes that can be strategically rescued at the circuit level.

His talk was part of the Simons Foundation Autism Research lecture series.

About the Lecture

Maturing neural circuits are dramatically shaped by the environment during windows of increased plasticity, but the timing of these ‘critical periods’ varies across brain regions, and plasticity declines with age.

Focusing on cellular/molecular mechanisms underlying these developmental trajectories, Dr. Hensch discussed specific events that control the onset and closure of critical periods. Maturation of excitatory-inhibitory (E/I) circuit balance triggers plasticity, which ends when molecular brake-like factors emerge to stabilize adult networks. Targeting specific GABA circuits using pharmacological or genetic manipulations can either accelerate or delay the onset of plasticity, and lifting the molecular brakes can reopen windows of circuit rewiring. Implications for autism spectrum disorder etiology and potential therapeutic strategies were also discussed.

About the Speaker

Takao K. Hensch is a professor of neurology and of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, and directs the National Institute of Mental Health’s Conte Center for Basic Mental Health Research. After studying at Harvard University, the University of Tokyo (M.P.H.), the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research (Fulbright Fellowship) and the University of California, San Francisco (Ph.D.), he helped to launch the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, serving as lab head and group director for 14 years. Honors include two Young Investigator awards from the Society for Neuroscience and a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award. He is a member of several editorial boards, including Neuron and Frontiers in Neural Circuits, where he is chief editor.

Past Lectures

What do we mean by ‘autism risk genes’?

David Ledbetter, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Dascena

Joseph Buxbaum, Ph.D.
Director, Seaver Autism Center
Professor, Psychiatry, Neuroscience, Genetics and Genomic Sciences
Vice Chair for Research and Vice Chair for Mentoring, Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Heather Mefford, M.D., Ph.D.
Full Member, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

David Ledbetter and Joseph Buxbaum discussed whether there are genes for which mutations confer risk specific to autism or whether these genes are really conferring general risk of disrupted brain development. The discussion was moderated by Heather Mefford.

Small molecules, genes and antisense oligonucleotides: Industry perspectives on treatment development for ASD

Federico Bolognani, M.D., Ph.D.
Vice President, Head of Clinical Science, Axial Therapeutics

Stuart Cobb, Ph.D.
Chief Scientific Officer, Neurogene; Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Yael Weiss, M.D., Ph.D.
Vice President, Business Development, Ultragenyx

Randy Carpenter, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer, Rett Syndrome Research Trust; Co-Founder, Allos Pharma

Federico Bolognani, Stuart Cobb, and Yael Weiss joined a panel to discuss new industry developments on the use of small molecules, gene therapy and antisense oligonucleotides as treatment approaches for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The panel discussion was moderated by Randall Carpenter.

New research results from the Australian Autism Biobank study

Jake Gratten, Ph.D.Group Leader, Mater Research Institute, The University of Queensland
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Bioscience
Naomi Wray, Ph.D.National Health and Medical Research Council Leadership Fellow – Group Leader, Institute for Molecular Bioscience
Affiliate Professor, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland

Jake Gratten and Naomi Wray presented findings from the Australian Autism Biobank study, an initiative to establish an Australian resource of biospecimens, phenotypes and genomic data for autism research.

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