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Tadpoles could offer insight into autism

Research led by a graduate student and a postdoc may lead to the development of drugs for autism

Tadpoles are helping University researchers understand the mechanisms of autism. Eric James GS presented a tadpole model of autism at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego Nov. 10.

James and Arseny Khakhalin, a postdoctoral fellow, started studying tadpole autism in Associate Professor of Neuroscience Carlos Aizenman’s laboratory about a year ago.

In the past, researchers mainly used rodents such as rats and mice to model the disease at a cellular level, James said. But he and Khakhalin decided to examine the disorder in tadpoles because of their large embryos and “simplistic behaviors” that can be manipulated and observed easily, James said.

Autism is caused by the “subtle abnormalities” in brain wiring at the cellular level, he added.

Scientists know that valproic acid, a chemical used to treat bipolar disorder, migraines and epilepsy, increases pregnant women’s risk of having a child with autism, Khakhalin said, but the exact impact of VPA on the developing brain remains unknown.

Inspired by a paper about the VPA system in rodents written by a team in Switzerland, James and Khakhalin are working with undergraduates to investigate the system in tadpoles.

The researchers hope to reverse the effects of VPA by manipulating proteins that are abnormally regulated in some neurodevelopmental disorders.

By modeling autism in tadpoles, the researchers will better understand the mechanisms of the disorder. “If you did it, you can reverse it,” James said.

Their research could “lead to development of drugs,” Khakhalin added.

“By applying the diverse tools for developmental analysis created in the Aizenman (lab) … we may now have the opportunity to investigate the mechanisms underlying (autism spectrum disorder) or schizophrenia at an unprecedented level of resolution,” wrote McGill University Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery Edward Ruthazer in an email to The Herald.


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