Some forms of autism spectrum disorder include stereotyped, repetitive motor behaviors. The cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps individuals to coordinate complex movements, appears to be physically altered in some people with autism. What’s more, several genes whose mutations have been linked to autism exert their actions strongly in the cerebellum. Together, these observations suggest that the electrical and chemical signals transmitted by neurons in the cerebellum may be disrupted, leading to some of the pathological motor behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Indira Raman and her colleagues at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, aim to find out how neural signals in the cerebellum may be changed in autism. The researchers plan to measure electrical and chemical signals in the cerebella of mice with mutations in autism-linked genes. Several of these mouse strains display behavioral abnormalities associated with autism. Raman’s team plans to focus on three genes that are likely to affect the cerebellum: MeCP2, EN2 and GABRB3.
The researchers’ goal is to identify alterations in cerebellar signaling that may be associated with certain behavioral dysfunctions in the mice. In particular, they aim to study the ability of cerebellar neurons to produce electrical signals at appropriately high rates, as well as the way these neurons respond to each other through chemical (neurotransmitter) signals. Finally, Raman’s team aims to study how cerebellar neurons change their signaling during patterns of stimulation associated with motor learning. Together, the results from these experiments may provide insight into how changes in cerebellar signaling contribute to certain symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.