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Creighton Professor Receives NIH Grant for Autism Research

The medical community knows more about autism spectrum disorders (ASD) today than ever before, but countless questions still remain. A two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant will continue to further the understanding of the disorder by funding a Creighton professor's research into a protein that may play a role in its development.

Shashank Dravid, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology at Creighton University School of Medicine, will use the $400,125 federal grant to continue his work studying a protein called glutamate delta-1 receptor. He speculates that an inadequate level of this protein could be to blame for over-connectivity in the brain in at least some cases of ASDs.

As young children grow and learn their brains develop connections, called synapses, at an astounding rate. By the time they reach age three children's brains have approximately one quadrillion synapses. Some of these will remain intact, but about half are gradually discarded before adolescence through a process called pruning. However, it has been shown that some people with autism don't experience as much pruning and thus have an excess of synapses - or over-connectivity - in the brain, a finding consistent with ASDs.

"Genetic studies suggest there might be an association between the gene that expresses the glutamate delta-1 receptor and ASDs, but there isn't enough research at this point to know why," explains Dravid. "However, our animal model suggests that a lack of this protein can lead to behaviors that mimic the core symptoms of ASDs, including social deficit, repetition, and even depression and aggression.

"We know there are changes to this gene in people with ASDs, but what that does downstream is still unknown. And we hope to find out."

Dravid will spend the next two years learning more about glutamate delta-1 receptor: what it does and how changes to the levels of the protein affect his animal model. He hopes this basic science research will one day allow scientists to better identify the cause of ASDs as well as a possible target for future medications. If successful, he believes science may one day identify a critical period of childhood development at which autism spectrum disorders can be treated.

Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under award number R21MH098270. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.