The Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR) is pleased to announce the recipients of its competitive peer-review grant program.
ACAR’s Azrieli Awards in Neurodevelopment offer seed funding to researchers undertaking fundamental, clinical and applied sciences projects.
“Since 2018, this prestigious award program has funded 13 diverse research projects in autism and related conditions,” says Stefano Stifani, ACAR’s Associate Director of Fundamental Research.
“Importantly, the Azrieli Awards in Neurodevelopment have helped launch the research programs of several new faculty members at McGill and The Neuro, as well as allowed our researchers to test new theories and drive discoveries that will greatly improve our understanding of autism.”
This year, three Principle Investigators have been awarded $85,000 each to make advancements in the field through innovative research:
Investigation of brain tissue microstructure in carriers of 16p11.2 and 22q11.2 copy number variants using 7 Tesla MRI
Christine Tardif, with Sebastien Jacquemont
The Tardif Lab develops novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to study the macrostructure, microstructure and connectivity of the brain in vivo. Methodological developments include novel contrast mechanisms, biophysical modelling, and high-resolution cortical imaging.
The lab takes a translational approach, working on both small animal (7 Tesla) and human (3 and 7 Tesla) MRI systems.
They use MRI to study brain myelination (the fatty sheath surrounding neuronal processes and fibers that increase the efficiency of electrical transmission), and how it mediates the relationship between structural and functional connectivity in the brain.
“Thanks to the Azrieli Award in Neurodevelopment, we will map the structural brain networks of individuals with copy number variants associated with a high chance of autism in unprecedented detail using The Neuro’s ultra-high field MRI scanner,” says Tardif.
“In collaboration with the Azrieli Centre for Autism Research and the Quebec 1,000 Families (Q1K) group, my lab will use this unique dataset to study the relationship between network myelination and behaviour.”
Generation of advanced animal models for a syndromic autism spectrum disorder
Wei-Hsiang Huang, with Keith K. Murai
The Huang Lab studies the molecular, cellular, circuit, and behavioral functions of genes involved in autism and epilepsy, with a particular focus on Smith-Magenis Syndrome (SMS), a condition caused by the loss of Retinoic Acid Induced 1 (RAI1).
The lab applies modern molecular techniques and neuroscience tools to decipher the function of RAI1, and develop therapy options using different experimental models.
“This award will help us in our efforts to generate an animal model for SMS, which has tremendous potential for studying the developmental trajectories in brain function,” explains Huang.
“Our project has a high translational impact and provides a unique path towards the future development of therapeutic approaches to normalize RAI1 levels.”
“We would like to thank the Azrieli Foundation for this award, through which our endeavour to understand the function of autism genes in advanced animal models is made possible.”
Elevated protein synthesis in microglia in fragile X syndrome pathophysiology
Despite the prevalence of Fragile X Syndrome (FXS) and autism, progress in understanding their underlying mechanisms and the development of effective therapies is slow.
The Khoutorsky Lab found that general protein synthesis is significantly elevated in microglia (immune cells in the central nervous system) in an animal model of FXS (Fmr1 knockout).
In addition, a recent study showed that a selective increase in protein synthesis in microglia, but not in neurons, affects social interaction, which is a core characteristic of autism.
“In this project, we will test the hypothesis that elevated protein synthesis in microglia in Fmr1 knockout animal models contributes to aberrant formation and malfunction of neuronal circuits and behaviours associated with autism,” explains Khoutorsky.
“The Azrieli Award in Neurodevelopment will allow my lab to study a potential link between two mechanisms that are known to play an important role in autism, namely translational dysregulation and microglial dysfunction during brain development, providing a new framework for studies of neurodevelopmental conditions associated with alterations in protein synthesis or immune responses.”
The Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR) transforms research, training and care to improve the quality of life of autistic people and their families. Established in 2017 thanks to the Azrieli Foundation, ACAR operates in the spirit of Open Science, inclusion and community collaboration. The state-of-the-art research centre is committed to advancing understanding of the mechanisms underlying autism and related conditions, developing new diagnostic tools and effective interventions through translational research and integrated care, and training the next generation of fundamental and clinical autism researchers.