Understanding how a disorder works is one thing. Understanding how it affects a family can be altogether different.
But James Rand, Ph.D., who holds the H.A. and Mary K Chapman Chair in Medical Research at OMRF, knows—and lives—both the research and the real world life of autism.
Rand’s sons, Jeremy, 19, and Marty, 13, both have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.
“I am sympathetic to the impatience that parents feel, because I know what it’s like to raise autistic children,” he said. “On the other hand, I also know that progress comes slowly, incrementally, no matter how hard you work.”
When he talks to other parents with autistic children, Rand says he tells them the truth.
“I’ll tell them, we’re farther along than we were two years ago, but autism is so complicated, we’re still a long way from developing a treatment,” he said. “I know that, as parents, they have a real investment in this research, because they see, day by day, the problems that consume their lives.”
At OMRF, Rand studies mutations in neuroligin – a protein that plays a role synapse function. Synapses are junctions in the brain where neurons communicate. Genetic tests of families with autism show neuroligin mutations are a risk factor for the condition.
Rand studies roundworms called C. elegans to find exactly what neuroligin does and what connection it has to autism. He has already found that worms with mutated neuroligin have trouble with sensory integration – a trait common in people with autism.
“Sometimes, people with autism can’t hear well when they’re looking closely at something. They have trouble doing two things with different senses at once,” Rand said. “We’ve found the same thing in worms.”
Rand says that by pinning down what neuroligin does at the cellular level, scientists can find the consequences of disrupting neuroligin on cells in the nervous system and in behaviors.
“We are making progress.”
At home in Norman, the work Rand and his wife Kathy do with their children is different. They’ve worked for years with counselors and tutors to teach their kids the things most instinctively know – how to communicate, how to organize and how to lead normal lives. Jeremy received instruction on climbing stairs and how to tell if people are happy or sad. Now he has friends he can talk to on the phone.
So for Jim Rand, real life and work intersect, and neither journey is easy. But from his vantage point, every small step forward, whether at home or in the lab, is worth the effort.
Rand’s work is supported by a grant from Autism Speaks.
OMRF (omrf.org) is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human disease. Chartered in 1946, its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.