News of the Week

Grant, plus gerbils, will help explore roots of autism in children

Feb 21, 2019

A Department of Biomedical Sciences researcher has been awarded a National Institutes of Health grant to help her explore the roots of certain neurodevelopmental disorders in children, such as autism.

Researcher Yuan Wang, Ph.D., has an R21 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Disorders. She's the lead investigator on a project titled "Development of a fragile X syndrome model in the gerbil to study auditory dysfunction."

The two-year grant totals more than $460,000.

Wang summarized her project:

"Abnormal or delayed brain development leads to intellectual disability and communication difficulties in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. In this project, we aim to develop and characterize a gerbil model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most frequent single gene cause of autism, characterized with sensory dysfunction, low IQ, poor language development, and problems in social communication. 

"Comparable to the human, gerbils have excellent sensitivity to low-frequency sounds and well-developed social structure that depends on effective communication. As low-frequency hearing plays an essential role in human vocal communication and acoustic scene analysis and involves specialized neural circuits for processing, studying whether and how this brain function is impaired in FXS is expected to provide an important and likely necessary avenue for understanding FXS pathology. 

"Unfortunately, current disease models for neurodevelopmental disorders are developed in mice and rats that hear little or none at the frequency of human voice. Recent advancement in gene-editing technologies and our completion of the de novo sequencing of the gerbil genome have paved the path for producing a transgenic gerbil model of FXS. 

"The successful completion of this project will fill a critical need for animal models that more closely recapitulate the sensory and communication deficits observed in FXS children and thus potentially facilitate the development of therapeutic treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders."