In search of a cause for autism

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 12:30pm
Computer-assisted coding of social interaction between mice colored pink and blue by hair chalk

By Keely Savoie

The unlikeliest of tools has enabled Jared Schwartzer, assistant professor of psychology and education, and his students to distinguish between otherwise identical mice — and accelerate their research into the causes of autism.

One day, Schwartzer happened to notice that one of his students had used hair chalk to color her hair, triggering an idea that would dramatically improve experimental design in his lab. Dusting the mice with the vibrant chalk was a quick, noninvasive way to turn the black mice into pink and blue subjects that were easily distinguished from one another by a computer.

Until they hit upon the hair chalk solution, the researchers couldn’t easily tell the difference between the black lab mice, which were bred to be nearly identical. Shaving or dying them would require a level of contact that could change a mouse’s behavior. But using the temporary chalk to color the mice meant a computer could score interactions between them, increasing the data’s objectivity while reducing the human labor involved in obtaining it.

Now, thanks in part to hair chalk, Schwartzer’s lab is poised to publish breakthrough findings linking maternal exposure to pollution and the likelihood of an offspring exhibiting autistic-like behaviors.

“The big hypothesis for my lab is that air pollution, chemicals in the environment and allergies all result in the same outcome, inflammation in the pregnant mother,” said Schwartzer, who runs one of the dozens of active labs at Mount Holyoke. “This inflammation could affect brain development in her offspring.”

The increased risk of autism as a result of pregnant women’s exposure to environmental influences has long been observed in humans, but the correlation has never been confirmed experimentally. In his lab, Schwartzer manipulates his mice’s exposures and identifies behavioral markers in their offspring.

Schwartzer and his students expect to publish a paper this fall with the results of the experiments. The study parallels other experiments in the Schwartzer lab and is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health and Human Development (Award #R15HD082638).

Using the chalk to distinguish mice has become the lab’s standard operating procedure, said Felicity Emerson ’17, who has worked in the Schwartzer lab since she was a first-year student.

Emerson came into the lab intending to pursue a medical degree and now plans to pursue an advanced degree in neuroscience at Cornell University this fall.

“I am a much stronger scientist because of working with Jared,” said the neuroscience major from Mansfield Center, Conn. “I wasn’t even going to go into science when I started and now I am about to publish a paper.”

What will you discover? Learn more.