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Understanding autism spectrum disorders through vision: a new project at SISSA

07 June 2022
The research will investigate the perceptual features in animal models

From hypersensitivity to clothing to an extreme focus on visual details, about 90% of autistic individuals report atypical sensory experience. Behind it, according to the most influential hypothesis, stands an imbalance of neuronal activity. Testing this assumption in the visual system is the aim of the new project awarded by SFARI, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, to SISSA neuroscientist Davide Zoccolan. Over the next two years, he will investigate the visual abilities and the underlying cortical processes in one of the most promising genetic rat models for autism spectrum disorders.

“I am very pleased of this result,” says Zoccolan, a pioneer in using the rat as a model system to investigate visual functions. “These animal models represent a unique opportunity to study autism, as rats exhibit a rich repertoire of complex cognitive functions, which make them more comparable to humans than less evolved species, such as mice - the more popular genetic models of neuropsychiatric and developmental disorders.”

Zoccolan, with the help of a PhD student and a postdoc, will carry out behavioural and neurophysiological experiments to explore visual processing in rats with mutation in a high-confidence autism risk gene. They will test whether these animals exhibit perceptual anomalies previously reported in autistic individuals, probing at the same time the cortical underpinnings.

His proposal is one of the seven recently awarded by SFARI, which is working with the Medical College of Wisconsin to generate and distribute several rat models of autism spectrum disorders for understanding the underlying mechanisms and for preclinical testing of potential therapeutics. All seven projects will be part of a consortium that will collaborate and share results over the next few years. The researchers will meet for the first time next September in Edinburgh.

“I am looking forward to start the project and to establish new collaborations. Studying how visual properties are altered in SFARI rat mutants will have a profound impact on our general understanding of aberrant cortical processing in autism, possibly paving the way to restorative strategies through reactivation of potentially affected circuits components, through opto- and chemo-genetics,” Zoccolan concludes.