The Orefice lab will explore how alterations in sensory input from the skin and gastrointestinal tract can influence brain development in people with autism spectrum disorders (autism). Autism is characterized by impaired social communications and restrictive, repetitive behaviors; however, the majority of individuals with autism also report hypersensitivity to light touch. As a postdoctoral fellow, I discovered that several autism-associated genetic mutations in peripheral sensory neurons that transmit signals from the skin cause touch hypersensitivity in mice. Further, I found that restoring the function of these peripheral touch neurons reduced touch hypersensitivity, but also improved anxiety and social deficits in these animals. Now, using a combination of cutting-edge techniques in molecular genetics, anatomy, neurophysiology, and behavioral analyses, my lab will assess how autism-associated mutations in peripheral sensory neurons affect not only the animals’ sensitivity to touch, but also gastrointestinal disturbances observed in patients with autism. In addition, we aim to understand how altered peripheral neuron function affects brain development and complex behaviors in mice. Lastly, we will examine whether cells derived from individuals with autism—when engineered to develop into peripheral sensory neurons—display similar changes in function. The identification of drugs that improve peripheral sensory neuron function could lead to new strategies for the treatment of autism.