Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disability estimated to affect 1 in 68 individuals in the United States, is among the most complex of all brain disorders. Both genetic and environmental risk factors are believed to underlie autism, and scientists are seeking to understand the causes of the behaviors seen in individuals with ASD.
A desire to boost interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research into the genetic, biological, and brain bases of autism led Lisa Yang and Hock Tan ’75 SM’75 to establish the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute in 2017. Tan and Yang are parents of three adult children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. They founded the Center to catalyze revolutionary new research approaches and potential treatments for individuals affected by this disorder. The Center, headed by Robert Desimone, will focus on the genetic and biological origins of ASD, with emphasis on novel projects that are difficult to fund through traditional grants. By concentrating research efforts on the origins of autism in our genes, in the womb and in the first years of life, and on new therapeutic approaches, the Center aims to develop novel methods to better detect, treat and potentially prevent the most severe kinds of ASD.
Specifically, the Center is supporting collaborations across multiple disciplines—at levels from genes to neural circuits, both within and beyond MIT—in four major areas:
New models of autism
One reason for the lack of success with previous treatments is the inadequacy of many existing animal models. Poitras Professor of Neuroscience Guoping Feng is leading an international effort to create new models of autism using CRISPR gene-editing tools and stem cell technologies. Biotech firms have already expressed an interest in working w
ith these models to further drug development, and the Center plan to share models, protocols, and expertise widely with the global research community.
Link between the immune system and the development of ASD
Human and animal studies suggest that one risk factor for developing autism is dyregulation of the maternal immune system due to viral or bacterial infection during pregnancy. Assistant Professor Gloria Choi and collaborators have shown that immune cells expressing a molecule called IL-17 play a role in inducing autism-like behavior in the offspring of mice who experienced immune activation during pregnancy. Choi is leading our effort to understand how the immune system interacts with the developing brain and how this may contribute to ASD.
The Center will also pioneer gene therapy approaches to ASD, using CRISPR gene-editing systems and other new approaches. The risk for ASD is influenced by variations in many genes, and genome editing technologies offer the possibility to alter genes in the adult brain to treat some of the symptoms of the disorder. This effort is led by Poitras Professor Feng Zhang, who pioneered CRISPR gene editing in mammalian cells. The Center will develop new methods for delivering molecules to the brain, and will stimulate research into novel forms of gene therapy that might provide entirely new treatment options even for adults already living with autism.
Understanding ASD in the human brain
A central goal of our efforts will be to draw parallels between animal and human studies, and to understand how ASD affects the human brain. ASD emerges in early childhood but it is also a lifelong condition that must be studied both in children and adults. Many researchers at MIT are seeking to understand how ASD affects cognition in individuals of all ages. We also collaborate extensively with hospitals, schools, and other organizations that serve individuals living with autism. Professor Rebecca Saxe is leading the Center’s effort to characterize the brain regions and networks that are impacted by ASD, and to test the clinical relevance of observed brain differences.
Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research
Scientific Advisory Board
A board comprised of leading researchers in the fields of neuroscience and genetics is advising the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research.
The board consists of:
- Michael Greenberg, Harvard Medical School
- Steve Hyman, Stanley Center at the Broad Institute
- Story Landis, Former Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- Matthew State, UCSF
Recent discoveries made possible by the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research include:
Studies explore link between autism, severe infection in pregnancy
September 13, 2017
Mothers who experience an infection severe enough to require hospitalization during pregnancy are at higher risk of having a child with autism. Two new studies from the lab of Gloria Choi and collaborators at the University of Massachusetts Medical School shed more light on this phenomenon and identify possible approaches to preventing it.