The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Siyuan Rao Using Prestigious NIH Grant to Study Autism

Siyuan Rao

Siyuan Rao

Assistant Professor Siyuan Rao of the Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department is currently working on a prestigious, three-year, $747,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support her groundbreaking research on the neural circuitry mechanism of autism spectrum disorders.

The grant is the second phase (beginning in April of 2021) of an NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00). The first phase (K99), completed in December of 2020, supported Rao’s postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Rao’s new lab does research in multiple-disciplinary fields to promote biomedical engineering advancement. “We are studying the fundamental scientific principles at the interfaces of biological and material systems,” as Rao explains about her lab.

Rao’s lab is developing a biomedical engineering toolset to investigate the nervous system. Her current research directions include remotely controlled neural modulation, multi-functional neural probe technologies, and the fundamental study of the biophysics and chemical principles in the neurobiological interfaces.

Together with her research partner, Dr. Qianbin Wang, Rao is applying these techniques beyond the brain, trying to reveal the mechanisms of mechanical stimulus-involved neural degeneration and regeneration in spinal-cord injury and Glaucoma models. Rao says she is currently recruiting graduate students and faculty collaborators for her lab.

As Rao explains the background of the specific research for her current NIH R00 grant, “Due to the dearth of minimally invasive neuroscience tools, it remains challenging to investigate the neural circuitry mechanism of the autism spectrum disorders with little disruption on behavioral assessment.”

In this context, Rao says she is focused on “leveraging cutting-edge technologies of materials engineering, genetic manipulation, and neurobehavioral science to study neural circuits underlying autism spectrum disorders.”

Rao aims to establish a wireless magnetic platform for neuroscience that enables pharmacological and gene-editing intervention in conjunction with behavioral studies on freely moving mice, as well as awake, untethered, non-human primates.

As Rao says, “Enabling the linking of remote control of neural circuits to neurobehavioral outcomes, this technique will facilitate the identification of neural circuitry underlying social processing and potentially serve as a future theranostic system for neurological disorders, including autism and its spectrum of disorders.”

The independent R00 phase of Rao’s NIH research is an extension of her invention, chemomagnetic technique, which she developed as a postdoc at MIT. Rao began her postdoctoral research in neuro-engineering and bioelectronics at MIT in 2016, where, in addition to her NIH funding, she was a Simons Postdoctoral Fellow working under the co-supervision of Professors Polina Anikeeva and Guoping Feng.

Throughout her career, Rao has deliberately sought out training opportunities to improve her capability to implement multidisciplinary research across the fields of biophysics, materials science and engineering, cellular physiology, and neuroscience.

Rao obtained her Ph.D. in Materials Physics and Chemistry at Beihang University (Beijing, China) in 2015. Her graduate research focused on the development of bio-hybrid photoelectric devices and electronics. (September 2021)