Humans are highly social animals and we use learned language to communicate with each other. Dysfunction of vocal and social communication systems is one of major symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD has growing prevalence affecting millions of children worldwide and yet the neurogenetic mechanisms of ASD remain unclear. ASD has a marked genetic influence with the evidence of high heritability. A genetic model for autism that possesses both speech and social disorders is still lacking. Songbirds, like humans, are among a small number of species that use learned vocalizations (birdsong) for social communication. The vocal learning in songbirds and humans share similar developmental process, neural circuits, and genes. These parallels provide songbirds an excellent model to study the molecular and neural mechanisms of ASD.
My research goal is to develop songbirds as a genetic model for vocal communication and its disorder. To achieve this goal, two different experimental approaches will be implemented: (1) genetically, develop songbird genetic models by making two transgenic lines: the first line will carry a human mutant-autism gene (ADNP) to mimic the human language deficit of autism; additionally, we will develop a line of light-sensitive optogenetic songbirds to manipulate circuit function that underlies autistic birds. (2) behaviorally, develop an automatic tracking device to monitor the movement of multiple juveniles simultaneously during the sensitive period of vocal learning and quantitatively measure social interaction. This device would allow us to characterize social communication disorder in autistic birds and its effect on song imitation. Students participated in this research will learn the fundamental skills of conducting scientific research, and they will have a great opportunity to learn, explore, and integrate this project from different disciplines that include behavioral, neuroanatomical, and molecular genetics studies.
Students from Psychology, Neuroscience program, or Biology who are interested in behavioral analysis or programing, molecular genetics, and/ or fine-skilled surgical operation are especially encouraged to apply.