Study Provides New Avenue For Autism Research

Study Provides New Avenue for Autism ResearchAn American study by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) compared the ability of humans and rodents to make decisions based on combining different types of sensory stimuli – visual and auditory cues. The study has found that just like humans, rodents also combine multisensory information and exploit it in a “statistically optimal” way – or the most efficient and unbiased way possible.

“Statistically optimal combination of multiple sensory stimuli has been well documented in humans, but many have been skeptical about this behavior occurring in other species,” explains Assistant Professor Anne Churchland, a neuroscientist who led the study appearing in the March 14 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. “Our work is the first demonstration of its occurrence in rodents.”

The findings suggest that the same evolutionary process may be at play in rats and humans that allows for sophisticated decision-making, “By observing this behavior in rodents, we have a chance to explore its neural basis – something that is not feasible to do in people,” Churchland says. This could offer a platform for study of autism spectrum disorders, the study said.

People with autism are often unable to choose which sensory stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore, making commonplace events like going to the grocery store a potentially insufferable outing.

Further investigation could explain why patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) integrate sensory information in an atypical and less-than-optimal way, relative to people without in ASDs. “We can use our rat model to ‘look under the hood’ to understand how the brain is combining multisensory information and be in a better position to develop treatments for these disorders in people.”

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ran tests that presented rats with a variety of sound and visual cues, and analyzed how the rodents sifted through that information and recognized patterns in order to get a treat. “We threw in a couple of additional features that made the task challenging enough to simulate a real-life situation,” Churchland adds.

Her team next plans to investigate how two types of information are being combined and how the brain combines sensory experience with memory. “Now that we have a good animal model in which to investigate these questions, the world – or the brain – is our oyster,” she says.

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