Cortical microcircuit alterations in an animal model of autism
Autism spectrum disorder is a key psychiatric disorder that affects social interactions and communication, whose neural bases are still not well understood and the topic of intense study. In this research, performed in Prof. Henry Markram’s Laboratory of Neural Microcircuitry at EPFL, under the supervision of Dr. Tania Rinaldi Barkat, we quantified the neuronal network impairments affecting the prefrontal cortex in a teratogenic rat model of autism. Using multi-electrode whole-cell patch-clamp recording in brain slices, I studied how prenatal exposure to valproid acid altered the intrinsic electrical properties, plasticity and connectivity in layer V pyramidal neurons. We found a significant increase in the degree of excitatory interconnectivity, as well as in the plasticity (enhanced long-term potentiation) of these connections, in the prefrontal cortex of valproic-acid exposed animals. These microcircuit alterations are consistent with those found in sensory cortices, and suggest that some of the autistic symptoms displayed in this model are associated with an hyper-functional prefrontal cortex.