A $900,000 grant will help fund one of the first basic science investigations into possible connections between fever and symptoms of autism.
The study is the result of a growing number of anecdotal reports from parents in which the onset of fever appears to temporarily relieve some of the social symptoms of autism in their children.
The grant, from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, is going to allow Professor Jeffrey Alberts and Assistant Research Scientist Christopher Harshaw to conduct a study in mice. Alberts and Harshaw will investigate the association between physiological deficits in the ability to regulate body temperature and social behaviors associated with autism using mouse models for both conditions.
“Like many research topics, the phenomenon isn’t totally unknown,” Alberts said in a release, “but exact mechanisms linking body temperature and autism haven’t yet been organized as a principle and unpacked to see how it could work.”
Alberts has extensively studied the way rodents and other mammals huddle together to share and conserve heat. The activity is an example of social behavior evolving in tandem with metabolic processes. The more heat an animal produces, the more attractive it becomes to potential partners under cool conditions. The ability to produce heat is dependent on the hormone oxytocin.
The new research will build upon earlier experiments by comparing huddling behavior in mice with and without oxytocin. The scientists previously found mice without oxytocin appeared to be unable to respond normally to cold and retain heat and received fewer contacts from other mice and had less access to more heat-generating partners.
With the NIH grant, Alberts and Harshaw will examine mice with genetic mutations that lead to autism-like social dysfunction and those with an impaired ability to generate heat and regulate body temperature.
“We’re predicting these two types of mice are going to intersect; that the inability to produce heat is going to affect individuals’ social behavior, as well as affect their interactions with their mother and alter the dynamics of the group,” Alberts said in a release. “By the same token, in those with impaired social behavior, we expect to find problems maintaining body temperature.”
The study will be held in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
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