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A Fork in the Road: IU School of Medicine researchers discover unique pathway in Autism research

Em Collins • 4/29/19

A Fork in the Road: IU School of Medicine researchers discover unique pathway in Autism research

It’s often through collaboration where you find some of the greatest research ideas and discoveries. At Indiana University School of Medicine, dozens of subject-matter experts are using their unique skill sets and areas of interest to further the public’s understanding of some of the most challenging neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Debomoy Lahiri, PhD; Deborah Sokol, MD, PhD; and research analyst, Bryan Maloney, were recently published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal regarding their discovery of a fork in the road when it comes to autism and Alzheimer’s disease research.

A breakdown of the research

“In one case the brain gets smaller and in the other the brain gets bigger,” said Sokol.

Amid previous Alzheimer’s disease research, Lahiri, Sokol and Maloney uncovered that certain amyloid-beta proteins were dysregulated in autism plasma and brain tissue samples which got them thinking: Perhaps certain known pathways in Alzheimer’s disease could be applied to autism to further understand the disorder and provide additional research options and new drug targets.

The “a disintegrin and metalloprotease domain”, or ADAM, family are single-pass transmembrane and secreted metalloendopeptidases. In Alzheimer’s disease beta secretases is more commonly found, whereas in autism spectrum disorder, alpha secretases is discovered. The collaborative research at IU School of Medicine unearthed the point where both disabilities are uniquely tied. This discovery, though micro in essence, suggests that if you treat the enzymes of both disabilities malfunction of excess atoms it could be argued that by dealing with one, you also treat the other.

The fork in the road

“In theory, aspects of Alzheimer’s that don’t result in the disability could effectively treat autism, and vice versa,” stated Sokol. “Though it hasn’t yet be proven, perhaps this could lead us down the pathway of understanding whether or not if different aspects of autism make one less at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, or if aspects of Alzheimer’s disease could make one less at risk for autism. It’s a lot to uncover, but even more to wonder and research.”

“It’s important to note that we’re not looking for one treatment that can be applied to both,” Lahiri said. As each disorder is different, one treatment wouldn’t be able to treat two disabilities that impact the brain in opposite ways. “We’ve essentially took a flashlight and are showing what’s on the other side of our Alzheimer’s disease research, which happens to be new lead in research for autism.” One of the most important parts in developing autism appears to be over growth in the brain. There’s stage in brain development when it’s normal that everything over grows, but eventually the brain begins to prune back what doesn’t get used. If the pruning is interfered with you can have normal levels of growth.

“We found deficiencies in amyloid beta which could be a sign of under pruning, eventually leading to autism,” said Maloney.

Future goals
This small but mighty discovery helps open the discussion between alpha and beta secretases for the research community. Additionally, it allows for more direct questions to be asked regarding how both Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorder are addressed and researched. But additional funding is needed in order to learn more and answer difficult and unique questions. From understanding how the brain prunes and digesting the deficiencies in amyloid beta to discovering the compounds that enable autism, every aspect of this research warrants time and resources.

“Going step by step to understanding the biochemistry and diagnosis will be a rewarding experience,” said Lahiri. “Fortunately, the advantage we have is the researchers and environment here at IU School of Medicine where this research is possible. Someone has to look from ten thousand feet up to better understand the correlation between these disorders and have done just that. We bring diverse ideas regarding Alzheimer’s disease and autism spectrum disorder which is, in turn, our strength”


Learn more about the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology at IU School of Medicine and how they’re both working toward effective treatments in autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.


Em Collins

Communications Coordinator

Having joined IU School of Medicine in 2016, Em uses a poetry and theatre background to help bridge the academic world with the creative. A graduate of University of Evansville, he works with faculty and academic staff to formulate unique, marketing ideas that engage the public with innovative research at IU School of Medicine. From writing stories on groundbreaking equipment to orchestrating digital marketing strategies, Em collaborates with experts across the school to help departments thrive in their marketing and communication ambitions.Contact Em at