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New Autism Research Highlights Brain Circuit of Interest Professor Catherine Stoodley’s work featured in Nature Neuroscience

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Human brain with cerebellum highlighted in yellow and orange.

A new study on autism, first-authored by Associate Professor of Psychology Catherine Stoodley, appears as the December cover story of the journal Nature Neuroscience. Stoodley and her co-authors researched the role of the cerebellum (or "little brain") in autism spectrum disorders. They identified a key brain circuit between the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex in both mice and humans that is associated with autism. By stimulating or disrupting this brain circuit, the researchers were able to manipulate some symptoms of autism—specifically, social behaviors.

The findings may have future implications for treatment of autism spectrum disorders in humans.

"Having the article featured on the cover is exciting because it brings attention to the science, and it is great to have our work highlighted in this way," says Stoodley. "The cover art, produced by my former doctoral student Anila D'Mello (PhD BCaN '17), who is second author on the paper, is intended to evoke the original cover of Of Mice and Men, as the study combines both rodent and human data and shows interesting parallels between the two."

The Cerebellum and Autism

Stoodley explains that structural and functional differences in the cerebellum are evident at all levels of autism research, from individual neurons to the larger structural level. However, the role of the cerebellum in autism has not always been well-recognized or understood.

"Our previous work has helped to reveal a specific region of the cerebellum where there are consistent differences in autism, and this new study specifically explores the function of this region. Our findings show that, in the mouse, disruption of this specific cerebellar region is sufficient to produce autism-related symptoms, which supports the potential importance of the cerebellum in the etiology of autism."

The researchers also showed that they were able to modulate this cerebellar region in humans. "In doing so, we impacted a circuit that shows differences in children with autism when compared with typically-developing children," Stoodley says. "Together with the data showing that cerebellar neuromodulation rescues social behaviors in a mouse model of autism, this suggests that cerebellar neuromodulation may be an important avenue to explore as a possible therapeutic approach in autism. At the moment, we are conducting the basic science that will be the foundation for this future direction."

The Researchers

At American University, Stoodley teaches courses in developmental neuroscience and the brain bases of behavior. She also directs the Developmental Neuroscience Lab. Her work focuses on the brain bases of typical development and developmental disorders, and specifically the role of the human cerebellum in cognitive development and developmental disorders. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on how basic visual, auditory and motor functions contribute to reading and reading disorders. As a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, she used brain imaging to study the cerebellum and its role in both movement and cognitive processes. Her lab at AU employs clinical studies, structural and functional neuroimaging, neuromodulation with transcranial direct current stimulation, and behavioral testing to investigate the functional anatomy of the cerebellum and the type of processing that the cerebellum performs.

The study featured in Nature Neuroscience incorporated the collaborative work of several research labs and many researchers. The mouse work was led by Peter Tsai, MD, PhD, and professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.