Candidate: I have had a competitive, independent research program at the Yerkes National Primate Center and Emory University for over 10 years focusing on comparative social cognition, specifically how monkeys and apes process information about identity and emotion from faces. Face recognition is an important skill in humans and its deficits are a common phenotype in numerous neurodevelopmental and neuropathological disorders, like autism. Because of this, I have become interested in exploring the possibility for translational applications for this research, bridging basic research in monkey with preclinical studies. With the newly formed Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at Emory and the recruitment of Dr. Ami Klin to serve as Director for Autism Research at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, I feel that this is the ideal time to seek new training that will advance my opportunities for career development in translational social neuroscience and autism research. Therefore, this Career Development Award is designed to broaden my solid background in basic research on social cognition by providing training in translational social neuroscience focused on clinical research training in autism and training in the neuropharmacology of prosocial behavior. Environment: Training will be achieved through collaboration with colleagues at Emory University, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience at Emory, and the Marcus Autism Center. Each of these Centers is located within a mile of Emory's main campus, is world renowned for scientific and academic excellence, and will provide unparalleled support both in terms of infrastructure and opportunities for career development. The short-term goals for this award are threefold. The first goal is to gain important training in neuropeptide systems and basic neuropharmacology research methods. This will come through interactions with Dr. Larry Young, Director for the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience and Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders. This will include training in how to determine drug doses and delivery methods for administering oxytocin to primates. I will apply this knowledge to investigate whether the neuropeptide oxytocin can modulate monkeys'performance on social cognitive tasks. Additionally, I will work with Dr. Leonard Howell, Director for the Division of Neuropharmacology and Neurologic Diseases and the Yerkes Imaging Center to learn several basic neurosurgical preparations and drug administration procedures that are commonly used to study the neuropharmacological basis of behavior in monkeys. The second goal is to gain clinical experience using translational research methods in autism. To do this, I will work with Dr. Ami Klin, the Director for Autism Research at the Marcus Autism Center. Dr. Klin's laboratory has pioneered the use of robust, data-driven eye- tracking methods for studying visual social engagement in autism. Using these methods, Dr. Klin and his team have identified risk factors for developing autism in infants as early as 6 months of age. I will then implement these methods to study visual social engagement in monkeys, providing a hands-on opportunity to apply this translational research approach to my currently funded studies. The final goal is to gain clinical training in autism through interactions with both Dr. Roy Sanders, Medical Director at Marcus, and Dr. Klin by observing children with ASD, learning about early intervention programs, and assisting with research studies. Research: The proposed research builds strategically on my expertise in comparative social cognition while providing the opportunity for the hands-on training in these new areas. The training Aim 1 will investigate whether oxytocin is able to influence the performance of monkeys on several of the current R01 tasks (Aims 1, 2 and 4), including face recognition, facial expression discrimination and social attention. The training Aim 2 is to apply the objective, data-driven eye-tracking methods used to study visual social engagement in infants at risk for developing autism to studies of monkey social perception. This will strengthen the approach to be taken in the current R01 Aim 1, which is to use eye-tracking to compare the validity of viewing preference compared to operant procedures in studies of primate social cognition, as it will establish this translational method as viable in monkeys. My long-term goal is to develop a competitive research program that bridges comparative and translational social neuroscience to understand the basic behavior and neurobiology of social cognition, with a focus on developing animal models for the treatment of social deficits. The new aims proposed in this award will provide hands-on opportunities to apply the new training in a manner that will not only enhance the outcome of my current R01, but provide the experience necessary to achieve my long-term goals for career development.
Progress in the development of pharmacotherapies for treating the social impairments associated with autism, and other neuropathological disorders, has been slowed by the lack of well- defined methods for testing whether these drugs positively impact social behavior. This project will examine the efficacy of one drug, oxytocin, in modulating the performance of monkeys on several tasks that have revealed social impairments in autism, including face perception and facial expression discrimination. It will also establish a robust translational eye-tracking method for studying social engagement in monkeys that can be used to screen the efficacy of novel pharmacotherapies. The goal is to bridge basic and preclinical studies to establish a means for screening drugs that could improve the lives of individuals affected by autism.