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Siyuan Rao Receives Young Investigator Grant to Study Autism

Siyuan Rao

Siyuan Rao

Assistant Professor Siyuan Rao of the Biomedical Engineering Department has received a two-year, $70,000 Young Investigator Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) to develop a toolset that will enable her to investigate the cellular mechanism of the neural circuits related to autism.

UMass Amherst Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences Rebecca Ready and UMass Chan Medical School Professor of Neurobiology Haley Melikian are serving as mentors and senior collaborators in Rao’s Young Investigator Grant.

In this case, Rao is studying autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through her experimentation with adult mutant mice in order to understand the underlying relationship among gene expression, cellular activity, and behavioral output in ASD.

As Rao says, “In this grant, I am developing a toolset of engineering soft and stretchable optical probes that have the capability for real-time fiber photometry, mouse social behavioral assessment, and optical and pharmacological interventions.” Fiber photometry is a calcium imaging method for detecting neural activity.

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.

According to Rao, the need for her current BBRF research is the absence of effective tools for conducting autism-related experiments in animal models. “Due to the dearth of minimally invasive neuroscience tools,” she explains, “it remains challenging to investigate the neural circuitry mechanism of the autism spectrum disorders with little disruption on behavioral assessment [during her experiments with mice].”

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

To address these challenges in her proposed BBRF study, Rao says she will utilize cutting-edge, soft, multi-functional, neural probes to integrate optical and pharmacological neural modulation with photometry optical recording and link the cellular evidence to ASD-related behavioral assays.

“By ameliorating the interfaces of brain tissues and neural probes,” says Rao, “and consequently prolonging the functional longevity of neural recording, this technique will provide a unique opportunity to monitor the whole process of restoring gene expression [in the mice] and [accessing] the autistic-like phenotypes with cellular information.”

Rao concludes that “The outcome of this project will facilitate the understanding of the causal relationship between gene expression, cellular activity, and behavioral output in ASD studies.” (October 2021)