University of Reading

How do prenatal steroids elevate autism likelihood?

Deadline: Open all year round
Self Funded

Project Description

The causes of autism remain unknown. Some literature has showed a link between higher levels of steroid hormones such as testosterone in the womb and autism in 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 phenotype. However, the molecular mechanisms by which steroid hormones may contribute to autism remains elusive. Though testosterone is converted to estrogen locally in the male brain, the relevance of estrogen signalling in autism is not known. Polymorphisms in the estrogen receptor as well as the enzyme that synthesizes estrogen, aromatase, have been linked to an elevated likelihood of autism.

Our overall objective is to understand the role of estrogen in the autistic male 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 signalling by a novel estrogen receptor called GPER1. Activation of GPER1 in the male brain can regulate the morphology of neurons; this is changed in autism. 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 autism.

This project will offer insight into modelling autism and may uncover a novel signalling pathway that elevates autism likelihood. This is a unique project that utilises 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 between the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences and the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading. The project would be of particular interest to students interested in the underlying biology relating to autism. It would also be of interest to students interested in social behaviours, neuroendocrinology or translational neuroscience that is based on changes 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 methods. In addition, interested students will also have an opportunity to network with overseas and domestic collaborators.

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Funding Information

We welcome applications from self-funded students worldwide for this project.
If you are applying to an international funding scheme, we encourage you to get in contact as we may be able to support you in your application.

Eligibility Requirements

Applicants should have a good degree (minimum of a UK Upper Second (2:1) undergraduate degree or equivalent) in Biology, Psychology, or a strongly-related discipline. Molecular Biological experience a plus, but not necessary. Applicants will also need to meet the University’s English Language requirements. We offer pre-sessional courses that can help with meeting these requirements.

Application Process

Submit an application for a PhD in Biological Sciences at

Further information

Enquiries: Dr. Nandini Vasudevan at [email protected].

Supplementary Information

School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading:

The University of Reading, located west of London, England, provides world-class research education programs. The University’s main Whiteknights Campus is set in 130 hectares of beautiful parkland, a 30-minute train ride to central London and 40 minutes from London Heathrow airport.

Our School of Biological Sciences conducts high-impact research, tackling current global challenges faced by society and the planet. Our research ranges from understanding and improving human health and combating disease, through to understanding evolutionary processes and uncovering new ways to protect the natural world. In 2020, we moved into a stunning new ~£60 million Health & Life Sciences building. This state-of-the-art facility is purpose-built for science research and teaching. It houses the Cole Museum of Zoology, a café and social spaces.

In the School of Biological Sciences, you will be joining a vibrant community of ~180 PhD students representing ~40 nationalities. Our students publish in high-impact journals, present at international conferences, and organise a range of exciting outreach and public engagement activities.

During your PhD at the University of Reading, you will expand your research knowledge and skills, receiving supervision in one-to-one and small group sessions. You will have access to cutting-edge technology and learn the latest research techniques. We also provide dedicated training in important transferable skills that will support your career aspirations. If English is not your first language, the University’s excellent International Study and Language Institute will help you develop your academic English skills.

The University of Reading is a welcoming community for people of all faiths and cultures. We are committed to a healthy work-life balance and will work to ensure that you are supported personally and academically.

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