New projects focused on autism

Research will study role of hormones, genetics and immune response in the disorder

The Neuro’s Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR) is advancing translational research, training and knowledge transfer in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through its grant program, ACAR drives and supports innovative research to better understand autism and improve the lives of autistic individuals and their families. 

The four projects funded in the latest round are:

Evaluating the Pharmacologic Effect of Oxytocin on the Development of Childhood Autism
Haim A. Abenhaim

“Oxytocin is a hormone that has been associated with social communication and social interaction. Our study will evaluate the effect of oxytocin exposure in labor and delivery on subsequent development of ASD.”

In the last several decades, use of oxytocin to induce labor and delivery has become widespread, with estimates of over 75 per cent of women in labor being administered oxytocin. The effect of this high exposure to oxytocin prior to birth may influence the immediate interaction newborns have bonding with their mothers.

Dr. Haim Abenhaim is an obstetrician and gynecologist and maternal fetal medicine specialist at the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University. Dr. Abenhaim is Director of the Perinatal Research Center with research focused on determinants and outcomes of obstetrical diseases. Specifically, he researches cesarean delivery rates, prematurity, and rare diseases of pregnancy.

Mapping genetically-defined dopamine circuits underlying social behaviours in a mouse model of ASD
Jean-Francois Poulin

Some neurons in our brain release dopamine when we encounter rewarding stimuli. In humans, social interaction is intrinsically rewarding and drives dopaminergic neuron activity, but data suggests this process is impaired in ASD. This research project aims to understand the mechanism that leads to dysfunctional dopaminergic circuits and impaired social behaviours in a mouse model of ASD.

“This ACAR award is important as it allows us to venture into new avenues and explore the role of the dopaminergic system in neurodevelopment disorders. The goal of our research is to better understand the behavioral symptoms of ASD.”

Jean-Francois Poulin is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. Poulin’s lab at The Neuro studies how dopamine circuits are formed during development and how these circuits are affected in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders.

Interaction of immune activation and genetic ASD susceptibility in a live-imaging model of neurodevelopmental circuit dysregulation
Edward Ruthazer

Infection during pregnancy is one of the most prevalent non-genetic risk factors underlying the development of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The activation and involvement of the immune system plays a key role in this process, but the details of how immune activation modifies developing neural circuitry remain poorly understood. Using the zebrafish, a small transparent and genetically tractable animal model, researchers can now examine how risk factors like neuroinflammation and genetic background interact to alter the development of network connectivity, neuronal morphology and microglial function, contributing to atypical neural processing.

“We are grateful to the Azrieli family for their support of ACAR and their tireless efforts to improve the lives of individuals with ASD. This ACAR award will allow us to develop critical research on neurodevelopment and the immune system.”

Edward Ruthazer is a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. Ruthazer’s lab at The Neuro studies the development of topographic maps in the brain at the systems, cellular and molecular levels. In particular, the influence of neural activity and early experience on the morphology and connectivity of the neurons that make up these neural maps.

Understanding the role of RNA granules in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorder
Wayne Sossin

Autism spectrum disorder is caused by problems in neurodevelopment that lead to miswiring of the nervous system. A step in gene expression known as translation, is critical for proper wiring of the nervous system. Dysfunction in local translation in the axons and dendrites of neurons has been strongly implicated in ASD. A number of genetic causes of ASD are the result of mutations that affect this process including the Fragile X syndrome and the DDX3 syndrome.

“The ACAR grant will allow us to use disease-relevant cells from individuals with ASD to study dysfunction in protein translation and to find mechanisms to overcome these alterations.”

Wayne Sossin is a professor in the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Anatomy and Cell Biology and Psychology at McGill University. Sossin’s lab at The Neuro is focused on the biochemical changes that occur in the brain both early on during neurodevelopment and later during learning and memory - of particular interest is the identification of molecular memory traces that underlie behavioural memory.


Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR)
The Neuro’s 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.



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The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) is a bilingual academic healthcare institution. We are a McGill research and teaching institute; delivering high-quality patient care, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. We are proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.



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