Darielys Maldonado & Dinah L. Ramos Ortolaza Ph.D.

Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Ponce

It has been estimated that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) each year in the United States. Around 70% of those children can suffer from other conditions that can either exacerbate or contribute to ASD-associated behaviors, for instance gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Although the underlying mechanisms by which GI problems contribute to ASDassociated behaviors are still unknown, it seems like bidirectional communication between the intestine and the brain may play a role. For instance, research has shown that under oxidative stress conditions, which could contribute to ASD, signals molecules from the intestine and regulates neural function. Although the mechanism has not been elucidated, it could be mediated by neuroligin, a protein involved in synaptic transmission, which is also associated with ASD. For this project, we first decided to evaluate the involvement of neuroligin in sensory perception, which is known to be impaired in people suffering from ASD.

We specifically used a Caenorhabditis elegans strain unable to express neuroligin, to determine whether thermal and chemosensory perception was altered in these animals under oxidative stress conditions. Preliminary results showed that neuroligin mutant worms were not able to properly detect thermal and chemical cues in the environment suggesting that, under oxidative stress conditions, not being able to produce neuroligin impairs sensory perception. The next steps in the project will be to test other ASD-associated behaviors, and to examine the extent to which they are mediated by intestine-neuron communication. Results from this study will give us an insight into the mechanisms underlying intestine-neuron communication under oxidative stress conditions that can contribute to ASD-associated behaviors. This will, in turn, allow us to develop new therapeutic approaches for ASD.

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