Mapping the Autistic Brain

Research shines a light on changes in the brain

Brain imaging

Bruce Trapp, PhD, is shining new light on the autistic brain. Literally.

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Years ago, Dr. Trapp, Chairman of Neurosciences at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, found a way to make astrocyte cells — the star-shaped cells that help synapses in the brain connect — glow fluorescently. This has allowed him to study how the brains of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) “drop” connections.

Now, with the help of a $1.97 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Trapp and his team are studying how connections in the autistic brain differ from those of a non-autistic brain. They have described dramatic changes in the synapses related to MS. They suspect that such changes also occur in an autistic brain.

“In autism, the data suggests that the synaptic connections are altered,” Dr. Trapp says. “With this grant, we will be able to chart the wiring of the synapses.”

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By lighting up the astrocytes, Dr. Trapp and his team will be able to map their appearance. For example, are they malformed and, if so, do they still function correctly? Chiefly, the researchers will be looking for whether the astrocytes have mutated and whether their appearance changes depending on where they are located in the brain. These important questions come at a time when President Barack Obama has announced a new national focus on brain mapping.

Dr. Trapp doesn’t believe that mapping astrocytes will be a silver bullet for curing autism. But he does believe that this research will help pave the way to a neurological treatment for the disorder.

“We hope to identify therapeutic targets, and that the data will be shared and will generate research in the future,” he says.

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