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Internship puts UL senior on the front lines of autism research

Posted at 9:55 AM, Oct 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-02 10:55:56-04


University of Louisiana at Lafayette

A University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior spent her summer conducting research at Stanford University to uncover possible causes of a condition that's common in people with autism spectrum disorder.

April Pruitt of Opelousas, La., is pursuing a bachelor's degree in biology. She participated in the nine-week Stanford Summer Research Program during which she helped narrow down a list of possible causes for megalencephaly, or an enlarged brain.

The program paired her and other undergraduates from around the country with faculty members at Stanford who are doing research relevant to the students' postgraduate interests. The California institution is among the world's most prestigious universities.

Pruitt's research interests include neuroscience, stem cell biology and immunology, and she secured a spot in a neuroscience and stem cell lab. There, she studied the DNA, carriers of genetic information in a cell, of autistic patients with megalencephaly.

Pruitt and her fellow researchers hypothesized that megalencephaly is caused when brain cells reproduce too quickly during early development in the womb.

To test the theory, Pruitt and her colleagues "made cells that already had functions pretty much reverse time and act like they did in early development," she explained. They then acted as stem cells, a sort of blank slate able to be manipulated into the kinds of cells Pruitt and her lab partners were studying.

Autism encompasses a wide range of developmental disorders that can cause language, learning and social impairments. Twenty percent of the 62 million people with autism are estimated to also have megalencephaly. It's the most common physical characteristic among patients with autism, and there isn't much research to explain how or why the disorders are correlated.

During the Stanford internship, Pruitt discovered that certain cells missing a small - but important - piece of DNA that aids in language and learning reproduced much faster in early development than the others she observed.

She said her cells died "at least four times" during the experiment. Responsible for feeding and maintaining them, Pruitt found that keeping microscopic cells alive could be a big challenge.

"My experiment failed a lot; my cells died a lot. Cells are really finicky, but I just kept trying. A lot of research is getting negative data, but that 10 percent of the time when you get really cool, awesome results makes all of the hard work worth it."

"Even through the failures, I was so proud of my work," Pruitt added.

Treatment efforts, such as behavioral therapy and coping skills, are as varied as autism itself and depend on the individual, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Pruitt's research helps explain some uncertainties of autism and aids in the effort to find effective therapies.

"Hopefully by understanding the cause of megalencephaly, we can also better understand and treat a large subtype of autism. We can use this information to help children affected by it," she said.

At UL Lafayette, Pruitt conducts research with Dr. Karen Smith, an assistant professor of biology. They examine the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for movement and coordination, in mice.

Smith has mentored Pruitt for three years. When Pruitt was accepted to two internships last summer, Smith encouraged her to choose the one at Stanford.

"She has quite a fantastic résumé. I knew Stanford was the right challenge for her. She's extremely hard-working and isn't afraid to try new things," Smith said.

Pruitt said she started college with the intention of going to medical school, but her experiences in the labs at UL Lafayette and at Stanford have drawn her to a new path. After she graduates from the University in May 2020, she'll pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

"I want to inspire other students. STEM (an acronym for the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math) can be for them. If I can do it, they can, too."

(This article was written by Bailey Chenevert is student editor of La Louisiane, the magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Chenevert is a senior psychology major who's minoring in journalism. She will graduate in May 2020.)

Photo Caption: April Pruitt, a senior biology major at UL Lafayette, conducts research during a nine-week summer internship at Stanford University in California. (Photo courtesy of April Pruitt)