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Office of Neuroscience Research > Did you know? > Unraveling autism (Outlook Magazine, January 2017)

Unraveling autism (Outlook Magazine, January 2017)



From Outlook Magazine...

Like many patients visiting a doctor’s office, Kim Sebenoler started out her appointment by heading to the nearest restroom to give a urine sample. But her visit to the lab of John Constantino, MD, director of the William Greenleaf Eliot Division of Child Psychiatry, was not a typical exam. The goal was not to measure proteins in her urine or check her overall wellness.

Instead, researchers took her urine cells to replicate human brain cell function in a Petri dish. The study is one of three major approaches School of Medicine researchers are using to unravel the physical and psychological underpinnings of autism. The unique, multifaceted effort — studying genes, brain activity patterns and behavior — is giving researchers and practitioners a better understanding of the disorder, which today affects one in every 100 Americans.

The cells are helping co-investigators Constantino and neuroscientist Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, explore how brain function changes in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Both researchers are international leaders — Constantino in clinical autism studies and Bonni in advancing understanding of the underlying mechanisms of brain development.

Autism is most commonly characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulty with communication and social interaction. It has a multitude of forms, and psychologists recognize a wide spectrum of skills, symptoms and disability.

“We are engaging people across disciplines — geneticists, molecular biologists, child psychologists, neuropsychologists and human brain imaging researchers,” said Bonni, the Edison Professor of Neuroscience and chair of the Department of Neuroscience. “There is no single pathway toward treatment or discovery. It’s absolutely the case that we need multifaceted approaches. Washington University is uniquely positioned to address these challenges.”

Researchers collected urine samples from several members of the Sebenoler family, including daughter Sarah, 18, and 16-year-old identical twin boys, Mark and Jack. Kim Sebenoler is not on the autism spectrum, and Sarah has not been formally diagnosed, but the twins were diagnosed at age 3.

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