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How do prenatal steroids elevate autism risk?

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

"Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a devastating disorder that affects 1% of the population and is the most costly condition in the UK. The cause of autism is still unknown. Some literature has showed a link between higher levels of steroid hormones such as testosterone in the mother and autism in the children, particularly males. Most of this work has been carried out in human subjects using amniotic fluid retrospectively and it is inferred that in many cases that elevated testosterone levels contribute to the disorder. This has led to the prevalence of the extreme male brain theory of autism. However, the molecular mechanisms by which steroid hormones contribute to this disorder remains elusive. Though testosterone is converted to estrogen locally in the male brain, the relevance of estrogen signaling in autism is not known. Polymorphisms in the estrogen receptor as well as the enzyme that synthesizes estrogen, aromatase elevate autism risk.

Our overall objective is to understand the role of estrogen in the male autistic brain. In particular, the student will explore the consequence of loss of estrogen during development using genetically modified models in a variety of behavioural tasks that measure both anxiety and social cognition. We will also investigate signaling by a novel estrogen receptor called GPER1. Activation of GPER1 in the male brain can regulate the morphology of neurons; this is impaired in autism spectrum disorders. Again, measurements of neuronal morphology in cell culture models as well as genetically modified mouse models will allow us to decipher the molecular mechanism underlying steroid hormone-influenced ASD.

This project will offer insight into modeling a human disorder and may uncover a novel signaling pathway which elevates autism risk. This is an unique project that utilizes the expertise of Professor Bhismadev Chakrabarti, a social neuroscientist and autism expert and of Professor Claire Williams and Dr. Nandini Vasudevan, researchers interested in reward driven behaviours and social cognition respectively. This provides collaborative opportunities within both the School of Psychology and Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. The project would be of particular interest to students interested in the underlying causes of neural disorders such as autism. It would also be of interest to students interested in social behaviours, neuroendocrinology or translational neuroscience that is based on deficits in human behaviour. Students will use genetic, molecular and behavioural techniques in their study. The student will be part of vibrant endocrine and affective neuroscience groups at the University of Reading, with an opportunity to get training in teaching pedagogy. In addition, interested students will also have an opportunity to network with overseas and domestic collaborators. "

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements:

Applications will be considered from any candidate who holds (or expects to obtain) at least a 2:1 or 1st Class Honours Degree or equivalent in a Biology-related or Psychology-related subject. Molecular Biological experience a plus, but not necessary.

If EU/UK student, please contact Dr. Vasudevan or Professor Chakrabarti in sufficient time to explore funding options. Informal enquiries to Dr. Vasudevan at or Dr. Chakrabarti at

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