Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the United States. It affects 1 in 59 children nationally and approximately 1 in 128 in Nebraska. While great strides have been made in therapy, treatment, and support for families with autism, there is still much mystery surrounding the cause.
One hypothesis is that autism is a neural connectivity issue. During typical early development, the brain makes an overabundance of neural connections, which facilitate adaptability and learning during early childhood. Later, the brain naturally “prunes” connections that aren’t needed. During the pruning process, if a connection is missed—not pruned—the result may be a neurological issue such as autism.
Andrew Riquier, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Psychology, studies this pruning process. One of his interests is discovering if it could be possible to reverse pruning errors. In situations where inadequate or non-typical pruning occurs, would it be possible to reverse engineer the pruning process as a treatment for autism and other neurological disorders?
The answer to this question is a long way off, with many steps in between. “Right now I’m just trying to determine if I can intentionally stop the pruning process,” says Riquier. “If so, then we can start asking the next level of questions.”
One avenue for funding his research was through the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. The Buffett Institute is a four-campus, multidisciplinary research, practice, policy, and outreach center devoted to improving the development and learning of children from birth through age 8. The Institute works collaboratively with university partners, communities, agencies, schools, and families to implement evidence-based, high-quality systems and practices designed to help children reach their greatest potential.
One example of the Institute’s collaborations is the Graduate Scholars program, which awards one-year fellowships worth up to $25,000 to a maximum of four doctoral students each year. The program’s intent is to foster the growth of diverse, exceptional graduate students in all fields conducting research about young children and their families. The fellowship intentionally seeks scholars from fields not typically associated with early childhood, that use innovative methodology, and/or take a multidisciplinary approach. The Institute is now accepting applications for 2019-20.
Riquier and two other doctoral students, Shreya Roy from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Tuyen Huynh from the University of Nebraska ̶ Lincoln, were awarded Graduate Scholars fellowships for 2018-19.
“The 2018-19 class of scholars are doing a terrific job of infusing the academic world with groundbreaking research, and we are eager to learn more from them,” said Kate Gallagher, director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Institute.
“I was aware of the Graduate Scholars program and considered applying two years ago,” says Riquier. Despite having done significant work, at the time he had no preliminary data and was therefore concerned no one would believe he could perform the technique required for the project, as no one in the world had done it yet. But Riquier worked with a pharmaceutical company and eventually proposed a novel means of using their product that allows him to study development early in life. Something “others could do if they thought of it,” he says.
He then spent the next year, with the help of Dr. Suzanne Sollars, a professor in UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences who teaches neuroscience and psychology and oversees the research lab, developing this technique and acquiring the preliminary data needed for his research. “This year,” says Riquier, “I was ready to apply for the fellowship because I had a preliminary proof of concept, which made me a much stronger candidate.”
Riquier intends to test a drug therapy protocol targeting immune cells of the central nervous system that could lead to future prevention and treatment of developmental neural connectivity disorders such as autism. During early brain development, the immune cells known as microglia are crucial for the pruning and maturation of neural connections. Microglia dysfunction and inadequate pruning have been linked to the development of autism spectrum disorder. His research will be conducted with laboratory rats.
Riquier’s comfort with multistep processes is a strength. “Andrew gives serious scientific thought to his plans and next steps. He doesn’t give up, and that’s made him a great student,” says Dr. Sollars.
Even though he’s acquired the preliminary data, it would be prohibitively expensive to do his entire study without the aid of the Graduate Scholars program. “Without additional funding, this study would be beyond the scope of our lab, so the value of the Graduate Scholars program for the project cannot be overstated,” says Riquier.
Deborah Smith-Howell, UNO’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of Graduate Studies, said, “This fellowship provides an amazing opportunity for a truly outstanding student.” But the impact will extend far beyond one student, she said, given the collaborative nature of the Graduate Scholars program.
Originally from Connecticut, Riquier was interested in UNO because the research the Sollars laboratory was tackling appealed to him. “My long-term goal is to run my own research lab someday, preferably in an academic setting,” he says. “I’ve had the chance to teach a couple of classes at UNO and I enjoy it.” He’d like to continue research in neural development, discovering more about how neural connections are formed.
For now, his biggest challenge will be finding the time for all the work required for his study. “For these sorts of studies, because of the amount of work that goes into processing, Andrew is in the lab at three in the morning, and he often works through the weekends,” says Sollars. “He puts in a lot of hours.”
The technique Riquier is applying could eventually be widely accessible. “The cell type we’re focusing on is also involved in areas beyond autism, like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, so I imagine a lot of people would want to use it for their own research projects,” says Riquier.
“The fellowship is just as lucky to have Andrew,” Sollars says. “He will pursue something doggedly until he finds an answer. He’s always thinking about the next thing, which is great for a scientist.”
The 2019-20 Graduate Scholars application deadline is Friday, March 29. For more information on the program see https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/graduate-scholars.
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.