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Inferior Olive & Autism: Electrical Synapses, Neuronal Synchrony, & Cognition (funded through NAAR)

It is thought that social and communication cues pass by too fast for children with autism to process, making them appear socially or emotionally detached. One of the most common disturbances of brain anatomy in autism is the altered shape of the inferior olive, a structure in the lowest portion of the brainstem that communicates directly with the cerebellum. This study explored the possibility that there is a direct link between disruption of the inferior olive and inability of children with autism to process rapid-fire sequences of stimulus events. The hypothesis was that the inferior olive acts as a “cognitive clock” that generates a continuous, metronomic rhythm that allows cognitive separation of sensory events that are closely spaced in time. Experiments were conducted in rats trained to blink their eyelid to an auditory stimulus in the absence of fast electrical transmission within their inferior olive. It was expected that electrically disconnected neurons in the inferior olive, as may occur in autism, would prevent rapid stimulus processing. Demonstration of this could point to a specific family of neuronal proteins (connexins) in the behavioral manifestation of autism.