Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR): Transforming autism research, training and care -- improving lives via Open Science

Aparna Suvrathan

Aparna Suvrathan

Aparna Suvrathan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Department of Pediatrics. Her lab is part of the Centre for Research in Neuroscience (CRN) and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), at the Montreal General Hospital.

Aparna joined the Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR) in 2019.

What sparked your interest in neurodevelopmental research? 

My interest in autism, and neurodevelopment disorders more generally, arose during my PhD research with Dr. Chattarji.

We were investigating a region of the brain known as the amygdala, which plays a major role in anxiety and fear. Specifically, the lab studied how stress affects the amygdala, a question of relevance for stress-induced disorders and the long-term consequences of stress.

Around that time, there was very little understanding of how the amygdala was involved in Fragile X syndrome, even though anxiety is a key symptom. Therefore, I started investigating how synapses were affected in the amygdala in Fragile X syndrome. We were also able to gain some insight into the cellular mechanisms of a possible therapeutic strategy.

I’m very happy that this line of research has been continued in Dr. Chattarji’s lab and has greatly expanded our knowledge of amygdalar deficits and possible targets for treatment.

Later, during my postdoctoral training, I changed my research focus to the cerebellum, because it provides a unique opportunity to understand the plasticity of the brain, and how exactly cellular changes map onto learned behaviours.

However, in addition to the kinds of motor learning we studied, it was also becoming clear that the cerebellum is involved in non-motor, cognitive functions. Moreover, it is crucially important for Fragile X syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders more generally. And we just did not understand why. Therefore, these two research interests coalesced into our current research goals.

What drives your research?

Our research goals are to understand how synapses, cells, and circuits in the cerebellum are affected in Fragile X syndrome. The outcomes of this research will complement our investigation into how cerebellum-dependent behaviors are affected.

Ultimately, we hope that our research will provide the insight into this critical but understudied brain region that is necessary for the development of targeted therapies.

How will your research help to improve the lives of autistic individuals?

I believe that our research needs to be influenced and guided by the lived experiences of autistic individuals and their families. This is possible with communication between basic, clinical and translational research, as well as an ongoing dialogue with patients and care-providers.

From the perspective of a fundamental researcher, not only will this integration provide the direction for basic research, but also allows us to better understand the diverse ways in which brains work to solve the problems of daily life.

Ultimately, enhancing our knowledge of the complex workings of the brain, and biological heterogeneity in these processes, is an essential framework for understanding the diverse and sometimes devastating consequences of autism. This framework is also key to improving care strategies in order to improve quality of life.

I hope my lab’s research will answer key questions about how the cerebellum is affected in Fragile X syndrome. The cerebellum is critically important for both motor and cognitive functions that can be disrupted in Fragile X syndrome, with sometime severe consequences for patients.

More generally, we hope to understand how the cerebellum is involved in neurodevelopmental disorders, and what the behavioural consequences of cerebellar phenotypes are. Ultimately, this research will pave the way for targeted therapies.

How has ACAR helped advance your work?

Being a member of ACAR allows me to interact with members of the autism research community as well as with community partners.

I look forward to meaningful interactions with clinical and translational researchers, as well as with autism-impacted individuals. I believe this will give me, as a researcher into fundamental brain processes, insight into the real-world issues that need to be addressed.

We are very grateful to ACAR for providing the funding for a new project that will use a pathbreaking new technique in order to understand how Fragile X syndrome affects brain cells.

This research is at an early stage, but would not have been possible without ACAR funding, which allowed us collaborate with the lab of Dr. Jesper Sjöström in order to develop this new technique. Moreover, our trainees have benefitted from ACAR funding, and ACAR provides us the chance to network with other members of the community.

Biography

Aparna Suvrathan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery and the Department of Pediatrics. Her lab is part of the Centre for Research in Neuroscience (CRN) and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), at the Montreal General Hospital.

Her lab has two overarching research interests:

  1. What molecular, synaptic, cellular and circuit-level changes drive cerebellum-dependent learning?
  2. And what is the role of the cerebellum in Fragile X syndrome?

The cerebellum is a part of the brain that has a well-studied circuit architecture and is responsible for control and learning of movements. The Suvrathan lab studies learning in mice, and the forms of cerebellar plasticity that support such learning, using electrophysiology, molecular-genetic tools, behavioral analysis, and optogenetics.

In addition to its role in motor learning, the cerebellum is also strongly implicated in the etiology of autism spectrum disorders, including Fragile X syndrome. However, how exactly perturbations of the cerebellum result in behavioural deficits remains unclear. This lack of knowledge of the underlying neural substrates limits research into therapies.

Therefore, Aparna’s lab is trying to clarify this poorly understood role of the cerebellum in Fragile X syndrome. The lab investigates a mouse model of the syndrome, at the synaptic, cellular, circuit and behavioural levels.

Prior to establishing her own lab at McGill University, Aparna Suvrathan trained as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Jennifer Raymond, at Stanford University, where they investigated timing-dependent plasticity rules in the cerebellum.

Aparna’s PhD research focused on the amygdala, under the supervision of Dr. Sumantra Chattarji at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, India. This work probed how the amygdala and amygdala-dependent behaviours are affected by stress. In addition, she studied amygdalar involvement in Fragile X syndrome.

Research Areas

Cerebellar plasticity, Fragile X syndrome, synaptic plasticity rules, learning

List of Selected Publications

Characterization and reversal of synaptic defects in the amygdala in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome. Suvrathan A, Hoeffer CA, Wong H, Klann E, Chattarji S. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jun 22;107(25):11591-6.

Fragile X syndrome and the amygdala. Suvrathan A, Chattarji S. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2011 Jun;21(3):509-15.

4E-BP2-dependent translation in cerebellar Purkinje cells controls spatial memory but not autism-like behaviors. Hooshmandi M, Truong VT, Fields E, Thomas RE, Wong C, Sharma V, Gantois I, Soriano Roque P, Chalkiadaki K, Wu N, Chakraborty A, Tahmasebi S, Prager-Khoutorsky M, Sonenberg N, Suvrathan A, Watt AJ, Gkogkas CG, Khoutorsky A. Cell Rep. 2021 Apr 27;35(4):109036.

Contact

Email: aparna.suvrathan [at] mcgill.ca

Phone: 514-934-1934 ext. 47140

 

The Neuro logo McGill logoMcGill University Health Centre logoKillam Laureates

 

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.

 

 

FacebookinstagramtwitterlinkedInyoutube

Back to top