This eight-year project will focus on the interactions between genetics and environmental exposures that may contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder.

Mark Zylka, PhD
Mark Zylka, PhD

Although scientists have made significant progress identifying gene mutations linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, they have not investigated to the same extent the environmental factors that might cause these disorders. Mark Zylka, PhD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center, is one of the few scientists who have studied both aspects. Today the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, part of NIH, awarded his lab $6.8 million to further his team’s scientific investigations through a unique three-pronged approach over the next eight years.

First, Zylka’s team will identify environmental chemicals and mixtures that target particular pathways important for brain development in fetuses and babies. These pathways were previously implicated in autism from genetic studies, and include synaptic signaling, neuroinflammation, and Wnt/beta-catenin signaling.

For the second part of the NIH study, Zylka and his team will characterize real-world exposures to various chemicals currently in the environment, such as agricultural pesticides and valproic acid, which is used to treat epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and migraine headaches. Zylka’s preliminary work showed that a commonly used class of fungicides produce gene expression changes in brain cells similar to the changes seen in people with autism and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

Lastly, Zylka’s team will focus on specific gene variants known to be associated with autism. The researchers will use animal models to investigate how susceptible genes influence the level of toxicity in cells and, as a result, lead to neurodevelopmental problems.

“We currently lack a way to systematically evaluate which environmental-use chemicals have the greatest potential to harm the developing brain,” said Zylka, the W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at the UNC School of Medicine and member of the UNC Autism Research Center executive committee. “The inability to identify these threats before they cause disease represents one of the major public health challenges of our time.”

This challenge is particularly relevant to autism, which now affects 1 in 59 individuals in the United States.

Zylka added, “This research project will enable us and others to evaluate real-world risks associated with these chemicals/mixtures, permit future generations to minimize exposure, and help to reduce the prevalence of avoidable neurodevelopmental disorders that are caused or exacerbated by chemical risks.”

Media contact: Mark Derewicz, 984-974-1915