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Dr. Eric Olson awarded $1.8M federal grant for study of fetal alcohol syndrome

Upstate Medical University's Eric Olson, PhD, has been awarded $1.8 million from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to study the effects of alcohol on kinase signaling pathways in brain development, specifically in developing fetuses. Olson is an associate professor of neuroscience and physiology.

 Olson will use the funding to test why the wiring of the fetal brain, can be so deeply impacted by exposure to alcohol during development.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is one of the leading causes of intellectual disability in the United States. The CDC estimates that .2 to 1.5 per 1000 live births are children with FASD, which can cause central nervous system problems and issues with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing.

Olson said this study continues the work of Dandan Wang while she was at SUNY Upstate; she was able to show that ethanol exposure activates a class of kinases in the fetal brain called Src Family Kinases (SFK).

“A subset of these kinases are important for both dendritic and axonal growth in the developing brain, so inappropriate activation of these kinases might disrupt both types of wiring,” Olson said.

He will work to determine which SFK is responsible and whether targeted modification of its activity could possibly protect the fetal brain from this damage.

The exact “how” of alcohol exposure damaging a fetal brain is still not fully understood.

“We would like to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underly this susceptibility,” explains Olson. “Our approach is to identify the fetal neurons' initial response to ethanol—the biochemical and cellular events occurring within the first few minutes of exposure to better understand the initiation of the long-term damage. We think the knowledge derived from the study will provide a better understanding of the factors that contribute to FAS susceptibility and depending on the outcome, may inform neural protective strategies.”

Olson says this research is the continuation of a decade of work with the Developmental Exposure to Alcohol Research Center (DEARC), an NIH-funded center that started as a joint effort involving faculty at Upstate and SUNY Binghamton but now includes researchers from other institutions.

“Along the way, the research program has enjoyed the support of the DEARC, the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, and the Hendricks Foundation. In addition, the work involves many colleagues, notably Dr. Dandan Wang as well as Dr. Brian Howell who is co-Investigator on the proposal.”

The mission of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is to generate and disseminate fundamental knowledge about the effects of alcohol on health and well-being, and apply that knowledge to improve diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of alcohol-related problems, including alcohol use disorder (AUD), across the lifespan.