CART pilot grant recipient to study songbird model for disorders of communication

October 30, 2019

Dr. Stephanie White

Long before they learn to sing, baby songbirds, like human babies, cry for attention. Only through trial-and-error practice during a ‘critical period’ do they develop a song suitable for courtship. Human language also blossoms during a critical period whose closure makes it difficult to speak a foreign tongue. Currently, no pharmacological interventions exist for deficits in socially-learned vocal communication, including those arising from autism spectrum disorder. This is largely due to the lack of pre-clinical models with construct validity, since vocal learning cannot be modeled in rodents or cell culture. Fortuitously, recent advances in songbird genetics show that gene expression patterns in specialized regions of the songbird brain are highly similar to those in humans, indicating evolutionary convergence of the molecular mechanisms that govern vocal learning. Within a published data set from our lab we identified ~1000 human autism and intellectual disability-related genes that are expressed in the vocal-dedicated region of the songbird basal ganglia, during the developmental critical period for song learning. This suggests that the songbird is not only uniquely suited as a model for human speech, but for specific forms of communication deficits as well. Together with graduate students Caitlin Aamodt and Elizabeth Cooke, we are exploiting the advantages of the songbird model to characterize the mechanism-of-action of a novel candidate therapeutic for disorders of communication.

Dr. Stephanie White is a recipient of the 2019-2020 CART Pilot Grant. She is a professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA. She is also the chair of the UCLA Undergraduate Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program.

The UCLA CART Pilot Grant funds one-year pilot and/or feasibility studies for biomedical, epidemiological, or behavioral research. The purpose of these awards is to foster interactions and interdisciplinary research projects in the basic and clinical areas of autism. This funding has been made available through support by the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), and UCLA Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.