CART awards Pilot Grants to Dr. Xia Yang and Dr. Abigail Dickinson

Dr. Xia Yang and Dr. Abigail Dickinson

The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) funds one-year pilot and/or feasibility studies for biomedical, epidemiological, or behavioral research. This funding has been made available through support by UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), UCLA Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) program. The purpose of these awards is to foster interactions and interdisciplinary research projects in the basic and clinical areas of autism. This year, CART has awarded two Pilot Grants. This year’s recipients are Xia Yang, PhD and Abigail Dickinson, PhD.

Dr. Xia Yang will use big data to understand brain gene networks and predict drugs for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Recent genetic studies have revealed more than a hundred rare mutations and common genetic variants to be associated with ASD. Despite these successes, the heterogeneous nature of ASD genetics and the complexity of the brain anatomy make it challenging to fully understand the genes and pathways driving ASD pathogenesis. Leveraging the ample large biological data available to date, Dr. Yang proposes to apply bioinformatics tools, namely Mergeomics and PharmOmics, developed in her lab to understand how genes interact in brain cells and tissues in the form of gene networks and use the networks to predict potential drugs that can reverse the network perturbations related to ASD. Lastly, in collaboration with Dr. Weizhe Hong’s lab, they will validate prioritized drugs in an established mouse model of ASD. By utilizing big data and computational tools, the proposed studies aim to advance our knowledge of ASD-related gene regulatory network alterations at both tissue and cell-type resolutions and provide potential therapeutic strategies for ASD. Dr. Xia Yang is a Professor in Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA.

Dr. Abigail Dickinson will investigate early functional connectivity differences that bridge genetic pathways to autism. Differences in brain connectivity are widely reported in children and adults with ASD. Recent evidence shows that electrophysiological (EEG) measures can detect early connectivity disruptions during infancy, before the behavioral signs of ASD emerge. However, these studies have focused on infant siblings of children with autism, and therefore represent just one type of genetic risk. Dr. Dickinson proposes to examine if infants who have elevated risk for ASD due to a particular genetic condition called tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) show similar functional disruptions to familial risk infants. Using a data-driven analysis method, Dr. Dickinson will use EEG to measure similarities and differences in functional brain networks in familial risk infants and infants with TSC. Identifying shared patterns of atypical brain development could pinpoint early markers of risk for ASD, regardless of specific genetic underpinnings. Ultimately, understanding these early disruptions could guide brain-based, mechanistic targets of early intervention that could attenuate the core symptoms of ASD. Dr. Abigail Dickinson is an Assistant Research Neuroscientist in Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.