How the Bolton Lab is Helping to Better Understand Autism Spectrum Disorder

April 1, 2021

April is Autism Awareness Month, a time to promote autism awareness and to show support for the millions of people with autism throughout the world. The CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network estimates that 1 out of every 54 children has been identified as being on the autism spectrum, but little is known about the neurological origins of this condition. Dr. McLean Bolton, research group leader at MPFI studies neurological disorders such as autism, and has found interesting patterns that could one day lead to a better understanding of the causes of this neurodevelopmental disorder.

Neurons are not all the same, and instead, have very specific functions that affect our day-to-day interactions. In the Bolton lab, researchers have identified neural circuits related to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and have developed techniques to isolate and manipulate individual neurons, using state-of-the-art imaging techniques. Through these methods, the Bolton Lab has been able to send signals, called action potentials, to directly alter behavior in mice models. Observing which cells impact behavior helps to create a “road map” of sorts, to help researchers better navigate which parts of the brain have specific neurological impacts.

Many projects of the Bolton lab focus on the amygdala, part of the brain associated with the formation and storage of emotional memories. Researchers want to know how adverse experiences and genetic variations can shape emotional characteristics of ASD, such as anxiety and interpersonal difficulties. The lateral amygdala receives sensory information from both the thalamus and cortex and can cause the brain to associate negative experiences with ones that would otherwise be neutral. When this occurs, these normal, everyday occurrences have the potential to be mistaken as sources of anxiety and stress.

Research like what is being done in the Bolton lab has never been done before and often relies on custom-built tools and emerging technology. But the work is important – as Max Planck once said, “Insight must precede application.” Understanding the basic building blocks of the brain is critical to learning how it works, and it’s not until we achieve this understanding that we can pave a way forward. But thanks to researchers like McLean Bolton, we are moving closer to that landmark every day.