Social recognition is essential for individuals to survive, reproduce and raise their young. In people, social recognition can be severely affected by conditions such as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Interestingly, anecdotal reports from parents and professional caregivers suggest that children with ASD can exhibit improved social interactions during episodes of fever. Deciphering the unique characteristics of social recognition in animals and people, and understanding how this behavior may be affected by external influences, are critical steps toward helping to treat individuals suffering from social behavior deficits.
Catherine Dulac is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms and circuitry underlying the proper development and expression of social behaviors. Using viral, genetic and electrophysiological strategies, Dulac’s laboratory previously uncovered functional neuronal circuits and specific hypothalamic neuronal types regulating a variety of social behaviors1,2. As the neuronal circuits mediating social behaviors and thermoregulation are juxtaposed in the hypothalamic preoptic area, this has led to a hypothesis that the hypothalamic neuromodulatory systems involved in increasing body temperature may also trigger the enhanced social cognition sometimes reported in individuals with ASD during fever periods.
Dulac’s group now aims to use the mouse models and methodologies they have previously developed to probe the reported role of temperature and fever on social cognition. The group will use state-of-the-art molecular profiling approaches to identify thermoregulatory neurons, and to determine how these neurons and neuronal circuits influence brain areas involved in social behaviors. By developing a system to measure and manipulate local temperature in deep brain structures of mice, and combining this with molecular profiling of hypothalamic neurons activated by fever and gene expression profiling, the researchers will gain direct mechanistic insights into the effects of fever and thermoregulation on circuits mediating social behaviors. These efforts should lead to a better understanding of the effects of fever on ASD symptoms and inspire new strategies for therapeutic intervention.