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Understanding Autism

November 29, 2016

“I’m really interested in the basic molecular principles in our brains that tell us how we learn—how we concentrate and achieve outcomes that are important to us,” says the Department of Psychology’s new assistant professor in the cognitive and brain sciences area, Nicola Grissom. In her lab, Grissom examines mice to help us understand the genetic causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, in humans.

“The world is really unpredictable to children and adults with autism,” Grissom says. “They have a harder time seeing a relationship between one action and the outcome later on, and learning how their actions are related to consequences and how events in the environment relate to later outcomes.”

Her research starts with asking the right questions: “How do mice learn to predict positive outcomes in their environment? How are they motivated when you make a task more challenging? Do they have problems paying attention?”

Next, Grissom examines the genotypes and executive function abilities of mice. Because of close parallels between the mouse and human genome, it is possible to try to model genotypes associated with autism in mice, including conditions involving deletion of a large amount of DNA from one copy of a chromosome, a condition known as a copy number variation. One important copy number variation that she studies is on chromosome 16.

“To compare mice with humans, we used one mouse model where they are missing one copy of these genes from one parent and they inherit a normal copy from the other parent, which in the case of chromosome 16 is a condition that is highly related to autism,” she says. Because autism is a highly genetic disorder, by modeling autism-related genotypes in mice, Grissom is able to identify how genetic variants associated with autism affect brain development and cognition. She has found that these mice show cognitive symptoms that suggest they also have problems with predicting how their world works.  

Will Grissom’s research help us discover a treatment for autism? “The more we understand how the brains of people with autism are different, the more we can help them adapt to the world,” she says.

Besides establishing her lab this fall, Grissom has been preparing to teach several psychology courses and publishing new findings from her latest research. She recalls that her deep interests in psychology and neurobiology began when she explored many different classes and majors as an undergraduate. Her education took her on a path of exploration across the United States. Grissom was born in Honolulu, completed her bachelor’s degree at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and received her PhD from the University of Michigan. She joined the Department of Psychology as an assistant professor this past summer. “It is nice to find an academic home,” Grissom says. “I can take a little winter for that!”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.