Tuesday Thoughts: Fight or Flight

The almost cliché concept, “fight-or-flight,” is well-ingrained in our minds. Walking down a path, you suddenly realize that the stick you were headed toward is actually a snake.  You are on Facebook at work and your boss appears out of thin air.  Or, as a professor recently described, you are hiking in the woods and you come across a bear with a gun. Not just a bear. One with opposable thumbs and a firearm. Regardless of the event (no matter how implausible) the reaction is the same: your heart races, your palms sweat, and your breathing becomes rapid.  Your body is preparing you either to roundhouse kick the gun from the bear’s mutant-hand or to run away faster than Michael Johnson.

What would it be like if this same reaction occurred when you tried to remember the list of grocery items you wanted to pick up? Or when an acquaintance starts a conversation with you?

According to several studies, these seemingly commonplace events are often quite stressful for people with autism, even stressful enough to bring on fight-or-flight symptoms. Behind these symptoms is a brain chemical called norepinephrine that runs the stress response system.  Here’s where our lab comes into the picture.  We are hypothesizing that blocking the function of norepinephrine in the brain will reduce stress in people with autism, thus improving their cognitive and social abilities.  To block norepinephrine, we are using a drug called propranolol, which is typically prescribed for hypertension or test anxiety. Propranolol works by blocking receptors in the brain that normally respond to norepinephrine.

In a current study, we are comparing the effect of propranolol to that of placebo (or a sugar-pill) on a range of cognitive and social tasks completed by participants who have autism. These tasks involve things like remembering and repeating back lists of words or choosing between two topics and participating in a short conversation (sound familiar?). Our hypothesis is that propranolol, by blocking the stress response, will improve performance on these tasks. If this turns out to be true, we will have identified a drug (that is already on the market and is relatively cheap) as a potential treatment for some core features of autism.

Let’s be clear: propranolol is not and never will be a cure for autism.  In fact it’s quite likely that there never will be a cure, or even just one drug that solves everything.  What we are trying to do is to improve the daily life of someone with autism. To allow him to handle the stressors of the everyday things a little more easily. To help her engage the world a little bit more. For me, that’s an important enough goal as any.

Tuesday Thoughts: Oy with the poodles already


If you don’t know the famous Gilmore-ism that is the title of this post, STOP reading this and put Gilmore Girls on your Netflix queue. Now. You won’t be sorry.

After you’ve taken care of that, I’d like to start my first series as part of Tuesday Thoughts. Yes, a series is the cure I’ve invented for an unexpected hiatus from blogging for 3 weeks. Here we go… This series will cover the projects I’m working on in lab.  And, yes, it can be a series because I’m currently working on more projects than I can count on one hand. #too many

We’ll start with my first solo project, which I’m clearly excited about because it gets to be first in the series. In this study, I am exploring the incidence of impaired social behavior in miniature and standard poodles. Clearly, a study as random-sounding as this deserves a little background:  

My lab here at MU primarily studies autism spectrum disorders, which are a collection neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by the presence of impaired social abilities, communication deficits, and repetitive behaviors (think hand-flapping).  My adviser is an MD, who sees patients in clinic who have autism.  He also happens to be married to a former dog show handler. We’re talking Westminster, Eukanuba, etc – the big leagues.  Offhandedly, my adviser’s wife mentioned some unique qualities she’d seen in some poodles: they displayed poor eye contact, they had difficulty communicating needs to their owner or handler, or they had strange habits that seemed repetitive. Wow. Does that sound familiar?

Now, it’s important that I make myself clear.  We are not saying that there are autistic poodles running around out there.  But what we are saying is, “Hey, if there are some genetic differences between the autistic-like poodles and the non-autistic-like ones, we may be able to get one step closer in figuring out the genetic underpinnings of autism.” This kind of thinking drives many aspects of animal model research.  But what’s so exciting is how much more similar we as humans are to dogs, rather than to mice or rats.

Well, are there genetic differences?  Hopefully time will tell. Right now we are collecting data and  waiting to hear if we got a grant that would allow us to do genetic analyses. What’s unique about this project is the impact it could have if we find something interesting. We would not only contribute to autism research but also learn more about dog behavior and how to help dogs with social impairments. Everybody wins. Now who doesn’t like that?

{This post was originally published at my previous blog, http://postitjunkie.blogspot.com/}