Dr. Joaquin Lugo, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for research aimed at understanding the link between early-life seizures and autism-like behavioral problems later in life. The three-year, $415,500 grant was awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the NIH.
Children who suffer from epilepsy can carry a range of behavioral and mental problems into adolescence and adulthood, including changes in learning and memory, social difficulties and autism, Lugo says, but the mechanisms underlying these comorbidities is not fully understood.
To shed light on the relationship between these disorders, Lugo and his team will study the effect of seizures at different stages of development on later behavior in mice. They will also examine changes that seizures may cause in the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway – a neurological pathway involved in communication between neurons in the brain.
“We’re looking at the long-term effects of seizures that occur early in life to determine whether they contribute to autism on a molecular level,” Lugo says. “We know that molecular changes to the mTOR signaling pathway in the brain are associated with both epilepsy and autism, so this research will help to determine whether the processes may be related.”
In the longer term, Lugo hopes that understanding the role of the mTOR pathway in both epilepsy and autism could eventually lead to development of new treatments.
“This project is the first of many steps in a continuum of research that will systematically identify the autistic-like behavioral changes and alterations in the mTOR signaling pathway that occur after seizures,” he says. “Ultimately, the research could provide treatments for the behavioral and molecular alterations that occur in individuals with autism and epilepsy.”
Preliminary data for the proposal was gathered with funding from the Young Investigator Development Program, an internal research grant program that provides seed funding to help recently appointed, tenure-track faculty develop competitive proposals for external funding.
Click here to learn more about the research on Lugo’s lab website.