Each of the first eight International Behavioral Neuroscience Society (IBNS) conferences – including one in utero – Skylar Lambert ’19 attended with her mother, acclaimed neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, was special in its own way. But none so far has topped No. 9 in June, when Skylar earned some scientific acclaim of her own when she won the undergraduate presentation award at the 2019 IBNS meeting in Cairns, Australia.
“I could see the smile on my mom’s face,” Lambert said. “It made her proud, and that is something I will remember for a long time.”
Lambert presented “Establishing an In-Utero Valproic Acid Model of Autism and Evaluating a Mitochondrial Metabolic Intervention,” based on undergraduate research she did in the first phase of a multi-institutional, longitudinal project in Assistant Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Linnea Freeman’s lab at Furman. The project, funded by grants from the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and Institutional Development Awards (IDeA), explored how mitochondrial metabolism impacts susceptibility for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and studied a potential mitochondrial metabolic intervention.
“My main passion is what I would call nutritional neuroscience. We’re interested in what you eat and how it impacts your brain,” Freeman said.
In this case, that meant exploring previous research suggesting that people with autism may metabolize the amino acid tryptophan differently. “If you have disruption to the tryptophan metabolism, then your cells might be making less energy,” Freeman said. They tested the hypothesis by exposing mice pups to nicotinamide riboside, a naturally occurring chemical essential to cellular respiration, shortly after birth.
Half of the pups’ mothers had received an injection of valproic acid, used to treat seizure disorders but also known to mimic behavioral outcomes of autism in mice. The other half were given injections of saline.
“As soon as they’re born, in their drinking water they get exposed to this supplement, this metabolic intervention, to see if their behavior has improved,” Freeman said. “What we’re seeing is nicotinamide riboside may lead to some improvements to anxiety aspects (of autism), but we’re not seeing a major improvement to the sociability aspect of our model of autism … Our preliminary data is revealing that nicotinamide riboside may have the greatest impact on the anxiety seen in our female mice. We really need to continue to increase the number of animals and get a better idea how this is working.”
Kelly Lambert is a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, and she also presented in Cairns. Skylar Lambert said when it was her time to be in the spotlight, there were some nerves.
“I feel so comfortable around these people, but I thought, ‘Dang, I really have something to prove,’ whether it’s because of my mom or this was the first time a member of our lab had been to this conference,” Skylar said. “At that point I was extra nervous because (Dr. Freeman) wasn’t there to back me up, but I had to prove that our lab was doing something awesome. But as I was presenting, I got more comfortable.”
Lambert, a who earned her biology degree in May, will attend the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.
“I’m really interested in maternal-fetal medicine, and part of that is genetics,” she said. “And the work that we were doing with autism obviously has a genetic component, so this research allowed me to do work in a laboratory on more of a cellular level.”