Cntnap2 in a behavioral model of autism

Summary

Principal Investigator: Stephanie Ann White
Abstract: DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): Impairments in language, social interaction and behavioral flexibility that together occur in young children comprise the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Language, and thus autism, is a uniquely human phenotype, but studies of its neurophysiological and molecular basis require animal models. The broad long-term objective of this proposal is to develop a novel model of ASD using the zebra finch songbird. While no single model will capture all features of ASD, songbirds are one of the few in which the language subcomponent comprised by learned vocal communication can be studied. This is because songbirds, like humans and unlike traditional laboratory animals, learn their vocalizations through social interactions with conspecifics. Support for this idea comes from comparing the expression patterns of the autism susceptibility gene, contactin-associated protein-like 2 (Cntnap2) in the brains of vocal learners and non-learners. In both humans and finches, Cntnap2 is enriched in regions that are functionally specified for learned vocal communication. In contrast, transcript distribution in rodent brain shows no region-specific enrichment. As humans with CNTNAP2 mutations exhibit features of ASD and SLI, we will develop small hairpin RNA constructs that decrease Cntnap2 levels, first in cultures of zebra finch telencephalic neurons, then in ovo in the developing embryo. We will determine the effects of Cntnap2 reduction on electrophysiological and neuroanatomical properties in vitro and in vivo, and on vocal learning, other social and repetitive behaviors. Not only will this work illuminate Cntnap2's role in ASD, it will additionally provide a proof-of- principle for use of songbirds in understanding the role of other autism susceptibility genes on socially-learned vocal communication. A songbird model of ASD promises to provide critical information about cellular and circuit effects, and will be useful for screening therapeutic interventions. Our studies aim to inform novel approaches to improve social interactions, and thus the quality of life, of autistic children. PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE: Children diagnosed with autism fail to develop language, have other social difficulties and overly repetitive behaviors. To understand the neural basis for these deficits, we will develop a novel model of autism using songbirds, arguably the only practical laboratory model for probing the vocal learning subcomponent of language. We will investigate the role of the autism susceptibility gene, Cntnap2, on vocal learning and other social and repetitive behaviors, with the goal of applying these findings to humans and formulating novel approaches to improve social interactions, speech learning, and the quality of life of autistic children.
Funding Period: ----------------2009 - ---------------2011-
more information: NIH RePORT

Top Publications

  1. pmc Genes and vocal learning
    Stephanie A White
    Department of Physiological Science, University of California, Los Angeles, 90095, USA
    Brain Lang 115:21-8. 2010
  2. pmc Distribution of language-related Cntnap2 protein in neural circuits critical for vocal learning
    Michael C Condro
    Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology Interdepartmental Program, University of California, Los Angeles, California, 90095
    J Comp Neurol 522:169-85. 2014
  3. pmc Language-related Cntnap2 gene is differentially expressed in sexually dimorphic song nuclei essential for vocal learning in songbirds
    S Carmen Panaitof
    Department of Physiological Science, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA
    J Comp Neurol 518:1995-2018. 2010

Detail Information

Publications3

  1. pmc Genes and vocal learning
    Stephanie A White
    Department of Physiological Science, University of California, Los Angeles, 90095, USA
    Brain Lang 115:21-8. 2010
    ..The whole picture will only come together through comparative and integrative study into how the human language singularity evolved...
  2. pmc Distribution of language-related Cntnap2 protein in neural circuits critical for vocal learning
    Michael C Condro
    Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology Interdepartmental Program, University of California, Los Angeles, California, 90095
    J Comp Neurol 522:169-85. 2014
    ..Cntnap2 protein expression in zebra finch brain supports the hypothesis that this molecule affects neural connectivity critical for vocal learning across taxonomic classes...
  3. pmc Language-related Cntnap2 gene is differentially expressed in sexually dimorphic song nuclei essential for vocal learning in songbirds
    S Carmen Panaitof
    Department of Physiological Science, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA
    J Comp Neurol 518:1995-2018. 2010
    ..Ongoing functional work will provide important insights into the relationship between Cntnap2 and vocal communication in songbirds and thereby clarify mechanisms at play in disorders of human cognition and language...