To know how something differs when it’s broken, it must first be known how it excels when it’s fully functional.
Autism is a spectrum disorder characterized by deficits in communication and social behavior, most commonly diagnose in boys. While autism is heritable, and there have been numerous genes identified with direct correlation to autism, genes alone cannot explain development of the disorder. Hundreds of environmental factors have been implicated in autism, like chemicals, drugs, fuels, heavy metals, and dietary factors. Though, when studied in isolation, like many studies have done, either genes or environmental factors alone are only weakly predictive of autism onset.
My mentor has created a mouse model of combined prenatal environmental exposure to link the effects of environmental factors and maternal stress to alteration of brain histology causative of autism. Specifically, this summer I will be studying a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is important for emotion processing, learning, and memory. The focus is on cells called microglia, the brain’s resident immune cells necessary for neurologic immune response, proper central nervous system function, and are crucial for the formation of synapses. So far, the normal developmental pathway of microglial cells in the ACC has never been characterized, and it is unknown how prenatal stressors alter synapse number at different developmental time points. That’s where my data will hopefully come in. After characterizing the normal developmental pathway of microglia in developing mice brains over five developmental time points, the data will allow us to consider how toxins and prenatal stressors alter this normal developmental pathway. Likewise, it is unknown whether alteration in synapse number is due to lessened synapse formation or heightened microglial engulfment (elimination) of these synapses.
To answer these questions I’ve been working on staining brain tissue to be able to look at microglial cells through a confocal microscope and then reconstructing these 3D images through various computer programs. I like to think of it as a fancy photography project, one which will hopefully result in some really awesome conclusions and a colorful poster. I’ve been loving my time so far, and can’t wait for what’s to come.