Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by social and communicative interaction deficits and repetitive or restricted patterns of behavior. Animal and human literature suggest there may be a link between exposure to antidepressants, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, during perinatal development through the mother and disrupted social behaviors and possible association with ASD diagnosis in children.

Susan previously established a method to give mouse dams to fluoxetine (Prozac) through drinking water during pregnancy and the early postnatal period-a span which is analogous to the entirety of prenatal human development. As a result of maternal consumption of fluoxetine in water, offspring are exposed to SSRI throughout their time in utero and in the early postnatal period via breastfeeding.

This model thus creates a system for downstream study of behavioral perturbations consequent to early developmental exposure to SSRIs. Using this system, Susan and Rena will examine the impact of the SSRI exposure during pregnancy on juvenile social behaviors. Moreover, working with graduate student Rachel Rahn, they will be able to perform in vivo functional neuroimaging to study potential impacts of early SSRI exposure on brain structures and circuits.

This spring, Rena will be working to develop a social behavior assay and optimizing it for use with a software/hardware apparatus intended to streamline processing of such data. She will also be working on developing a manually-scored set of measures for this task as a learning experience in maintaining objective, experimental observations, and piloting these measures on a cohort of mice to ensure that the measurements and objectivity thereof are sound.

Come summer, Rena will be working with Susan on imaging Fos, a marker of recent neuronal activation, to trace brain regions involved in vocalizations made by young mice – a means of communication between pups and their mother.

Susan and the rest of the lab are excited to have Rena onboard and about the ongoing work she’ll be contributing to!