Project Detail
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Autism and the insula: Genomic and neural circuits  

People with autism spectrum disorders often lack self-awareness, making it difficult for them to interact and empathize with others. Using new genomics methods to study the neurons that are active during self-awareness and empathy, John Allman and Barbara Wold of the California Institute of Technology are learning how these processes are different in people with autism. Empathy is the physiological mirroring of another's feelings by observing that individual. For example, when another person is in pain, the observer's peripheral neurons are activated, creating a similar feeling in his or her own body. Empathy also activates a brain region known as the anterior insular cortex, which is active when people are self-aware, such as when they describe their feelings. Indeed, individuals with autism tend not to have strong physiological reactions in either their muscles or in the anterior insular cortex when they observe others in pain. The ventral part of anterior insular cortex, the fronto-insular cortex, contains a group of neurons known as the Von Economo neurons, which Allman and Wold hypothesize are involved in self-monitoring and self-regulation. The researchers are using a technique recently developed in the Wold lab, called RNA-Seq, to study gene expression in the anterior insular cortex of the brains of individuals with autism. In RNA-Seq, messenger RNA is extracted from tissues and analyzed with high-throughput sequencing technologies. This technique can be used to quickly identify all of the expressed genes in a tissue, and it provides information on the strength of expression as well. In the researchers' pilot study, RNA-Seq data revealed the abnormal expression of genes involved in inflammation and neuronal function. Allman and Wold are using laser microdissection to isolate specific cell types within the fronto-insular cortex — including the Von Economo neurons — for RNA-Seq analysis, which may allow them to detect gene expression that would otherwise be masked in a tissue sample with many cell types. Using these techniques, the researchers hope to develop detailed gene expression profiles of the various brain structures and cell types that have been strongly linked to autism. Project Status
ONGOING

2010

Funder Simons Foundation
Fiscal Year Funding $620,304.50
Current Award Period 2009-2012
Project Number 137661
Principal Investigator Allman, John
Received ARRA Funding? No
Strategic Plan Question Question 2: How Can I Understand What Is Happening? (Biology)
Subcategory Molecular Pathways
Strategic Plan Objective 2O. Not specific to Question 2 objectives
Federal or Private? Private
Institution California Institute of Technology
State/Country California
Web Link 1 Autism and the insula: Genomic and neural circuits (External web link)
Web Link 2 No URL available.
Web Link 3 No URL available.
New! History/Related Projects Autism and the insula: Genomic and neural circuits | $368,569.50 | 2009 | 137661