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Creighton research aims to answer "why" in autism

A new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that one in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - a 30 percent increase from just two years ago. The report doesn't cite reasons for this increase, but does say, "There remains an urgent need to continue the search for answers and provide help to people living with ASD."

Shashank Dravid, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology at Creighton University School of Medicine, is doing just that. He received a two-year National Institutes of Health grant in 2013 to study a protein that he believes plays a role in the development of autism. Dravid speculates that an inadequate level of the glutamate delta-1 receptor could be to blame for over-connectivity in the brain in at least some cases of ASD.

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 ASD don't experience as much pruning and thus have an excess of synapses - or over-connectivity - in the brain, a finding consistent with autism.

"Genetic studies suggest there might be an association between the gene that expresses the glutamate delta-1 receptor and autism, 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 ASD, including social deficit, repetition and even depression and aggression.

"We know there are changes to this gene in people with autism, 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 clinicians to better identify the cause of ASD 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 these disorders can be treated.